Why hitting to right turned out wrong for Rays’ Randy Arozarena

When Randy Arozarena hit opposite-field home runs in the Rays’ third and fourth games of the season, it looked like it might be the start of something.

Arozarena explained he was seeking to add another element to his offensive game, that “sometimes you’ve got to work on the difficulties of your swing.” Manager Kevin Cash joked about hoping Arozarena doesn’t try to do it all the time and reminded the dynamic right-handed hitter he was still allowed to pull the ball, too.

But as Arozarena struggled for much of the next three-plus weeks — hitting .110 (8-for-73) with no homers, only one extra base hit and three RBIs over the next 19 games through Monday — his decision to hit the ball more to the right side may be at the root of what is wrong.

“Part of growing and becoming a complete player, as you explore things, he wanted to use the right side of the field a little more often, and it’s probably creating length in his (swing) path,” hitting coach Chad Mottola said.

“But you have to appreciate guys trying to get better and improve. And you have to explore, and sometimes you go down the wrong road. Maybe it’s possibly what happened this time.”

In other words, the success Arozarena had hitting the homers in back-to-back games against the Blue Jays was not an optimal outcome.

“Maybe it is long term, but right now it’s not,” Mottola said. “You don’t want to take anything away, but you have to stick to your strengths.

“You have to appreciate guys that are always trying to improve and explore and find ways to do that. Sometimes you have to go through it to find out, ‘That’s not the type of player I am.’”

Arozarena declined to talk to reporters after Sunday’s game in New York but said recently he wasn’t concerned about his slow start. His .149 average is fourth-lowest among qualified hitters in the majors.

“I’ve been feeling good since the beginning of the year,” Arozarena said via team interpreter Manny Navarro, on April 14. “I just don’t think the results are coming the way we want them, but that’s something I don’t need to be worrying about right now.”

Mottola and Cash have said similar things several times about refraining from being overly concerned and remaining confident Arozarena — an All-Star for the first time last year —will put together a typical season.

“He’s a really good player,” Cash said. “He’s too good to stay quiet much longer. But I know he’s going through it right now.”

Over the last three seasons, Arozarena, 29, has been relatively consistent, becoming the first big-leaguer with a 20-homer, 20-steal performance as a rookie and again the next two seasons:

2021: .274 average, 20 homers, 69 RBIs, 20 steals, .815 OPS

2022: .263, 20, 89, 32, .773

2023: .254, 23, 83, 22, .789

Mottola said Sunday in New York he fully expects Arozarena, as well as 2023 American League batting champion Yandy Diaz, to work through what will be looked back on as nothing more than slow starts.

“It’s still April. All you have to do is look across the field and see Aaron Judge and listen to the boos and realize this is part of baseball, and it’s still early in the season,” Mottola said.

“Yandy is definitely hitting the ball hard and not finding holes; we need to get it off the ground a little bit. Randy had the base hit up the middle (Friday).

“But there’s no worry in us,” Mottola continued. “By the end of the year, they’re going to find their numbers. Unfortunately, they’re both going through it right now. But there’s not much concern.”

Arozarena came to camp noticeably bulked up after intensive offseason training, but Mottola said the extra muscle is not affecting his swing.

“I don’t think that has anything to do with it,” he said. “There’s some mechanical things that he wants to do and tried to do. And I don’t know if it’s the best thing that suits his swing. So, it has not much to do with anything. You always want guys to be stronger. But baseball strength comes in different ways.”

Cash sees Arozarena’s issue as a matter of timing, likely a product of the extra length in his swing that Mottola mentioned and sometimes being caught in-between on what to do.

“He’s just missing (pitches),” Cash said. “He’s missing off-speed pitches in the zone, he’s missing some fastballs in the zone.

“Just a little uncharacteristic. If it’s in the zone, he’s got a really good track record of doing damage with a lot of pitches. And he’s just not right now.”

The stats show it, as Arozarena’s strikeouts are up, walks are down, and his hard-hit and barrel rates have dropped.

Mottola said there is only so much a coach can do in such a situation.

“I’d love to say I know everything and have all the answers and know how everything’s going to turn out, but I can’t do that with a straight face, obviously,” he said.

“But part of exploring is finding out if it works for you or not. At the end of the day, it’s their lives, their careers. I’m here to support whatever they want to do. I’ll have my opinion always, but it’s up to the player the majority the time.”

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