It wasn’t very long ago that lots of questions were being asked about Nolan Arenado, and not good ones. There were rumors of immaturity, that he had taken to moping after being passed for a promotion in 2012. There were concerns that a poor attitude would keep him from reaching the potential so long touted by scouts and prospect rankings.
But two MLB seasons and two gold gloves later, the narrative has changed to this: How good can Nolan Arenado be? It’s a question the Rockies community has been asking especially after a strong (if injury-ridden) 2014 campaign by the young third baseman.
Apparently, its a question Arenado has been asking himself lately as well. Last week, mlb.com’s Thomas Harding got in touch with Arenado, who spoke about the role he wants to play moving forward with the Rockies. His passion doesn’t belie the humility that was questioned not long ago.
“When people come in to play Colorado, I want my name to be popping in their heads. I want to be a dude,” he told Harding.
The “dudes” now may be Tulowitzki and Gonzalez, but Arenado isn’t far away. At 23, it’s fair to say that his future in MLB is bright. But just how bright? Can Arenado be not only “a dude” but “the dude?” From where Rockies fans stand, in the midst of trade rumors, doubt and lingering questions, we can at least put stock in this: Nolan Arenado is far from done with his rise to dudeism.
Back in April, Richard Bergstrom wrote a piece arguing why the Rockies must move quickly on locking Arenado up long-term (a bit more on that later). In making his argument, he broke down Arenado’s wins above replacement (WAR) for 2013, when he ranked eighth among major league third basemen.
Where did he stand in 2014? Given that his season was shortened to 467 plate appearances, comparing can be a bit tricky. But without qualifications on plate appearances, Baseball Reference still ranks Arenado as eighth in WAR among MLB third basemen with 4.1.
There are a few things we can take from this.
For one, he did it with significantly less playing time than many of those ahead of him on the list, appearing in 111 games in a 2014 season marred by a broken finger and a troublesome chest contusion. Take a look at where that puts him compared to others on the list:
A big part of that continues to be attributed to Arenado’s stellar defense, winning a second Gold Glove after posting a 1.9 dWAR. That’s actually a drop from 3.6 in 2013, in large part due to time lost to injury, but still good for fourth among third basemen and 21st in baseball overall. And while his defensive runs saved also dropped from 30 to 16, he remained at the top of the National League. It’s funny to think that, while rising to the majors, Arenado’s defensive strength was doubted by many — a big bat looking for a position. Just another point where he’s gone and proven folks wrong. For more on Arenado’s defensive evolution, Fangraphs has a piece giving it a deeper look here (with cool videos).
Of course, anybody who has watched a game, or just tuned in for ESPN’s “Top 10” in the morning, knows the kind of defender Arenado is. Let’s just take a moment to appreciate:
The real difference last season, however, came from his striking improvement at the plate. Arenado slashed .287/.328/.500 this season, jumping from .267/.301/.405 last season. He finished with a 2.3 oWAR compared to 0.6 in 2013.
Where did it come from? Partly from a jump in power — Arenado’s ISO jumped from .138 to a highly impressive .213. It’s interesting that his line drive rate dropped from 23.8 percent to 20.6 while his HR/FB ratio went up to 11.4 percent. It seems Arenado may be aiming to hit with more power and, if it all comes together, watch out. It’s certainly possible, and as the Hitting Performance Lab showed us there are some similarities in Arenado and Cargo’s swings, and a strong potential for Arenado to continue developing greater power.
“But he plays in Coors Field!” you say? Sure, that is a factor. After all, he did knock only two home runs while away from home. But he maintained a .269/.310/.403 line on the road, certainly holding his own and a huge improvement from last season’s .238/.267/.352 line.
There was also another notable area of improvement: patience. Arenado remains an aggressive hitter by any standard, swinging at 37.3 percent of pitches outside the zone (o-swing%) according to Fangraphs. But that is a drop from the 41 percent of last season, and his swing% dropped from 56.4 percent to 53.1 percent in 2014. It made a difference, as his strikeouts dropped from 14 percent to 12.4 percent this season, while he walked 0.9 percent more.
That’s all to say that Arenado showed significant improvement across the board, tightening up facets of his batting that were weaker in 2013. He probably can’t be called a top-hitting third baseman, not yet, but if these improvements hold true it may not be long before that becomes a reality. Does he have the drive and the talent to do it? Absolutely.
Projections tell a similarly positive story. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections estimate Arenado will post a .288/.327/.463 line in 2015. That is projecting him to see a higher BABIP than in the past (.303) and a walk rate of 5.1 percent, slightly lower than last year’s 5.4 percent, and a K% of 12.9. If the improvements in patience hold up, as well as the increased power numbers, Arenado may even outperform those impressive projections.
Looking down the road, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to say Arenado could be a perennial All-Star, and one of those names that springs into the heads of visiting teams and casual fans, a “dude.” In October, former Zingers blogger Eric Garcia McKinley wrote a piece looking at Arenado’s career so far with a similar conclusion: the guy has superstar potential. (It is good to have the much more baseball savvy and less-biased Eric to back me up here given, in case it hasn’t become obvious, that I have sort of a crush on Arenado.) With an impressive performance at an early age and years still to grow, we are guaranteed a treat should he stay in Colorado.
This is, of course, another lingering question.With infamous agent Scott Boras behind him and the Rockies’ floundering in the past few years, can they lock him up? As Richard wrote back in April, it should come sooner rather than later if it is, indeed, to come. If Arenado remains healthy this season (fingers crossed) and takes more firm steps towards stardom, we may be simultaneously slipping further away from keeping him in Colorado long-term as his value, and leverage, rise.
Arenado will be arbitration eligible in 2016 and rather than enter that whole headache, the Rockies should look to follow the precedent they set with the contracts given to Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez and move quickly to sign Arenado long-term.
With Arenado locked up, he becomes a talent for Bridich to continue building around, especially as Tulowitzki and Gonzalez’s places seem tenuous with the trade rumors of late. We could be looking at a not-too-distant future with Arenado as the Rockies’ “face of the franchise,” and with that, let us abide.