How Did Nolan Arenado Get So Good At Defense?

Over the last two years, only one National League third baseman has had better defensive numbers than Nolan Arenado. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Back in 2011, when Arenado debuted on Keith Law’s top 100 list at 92, Law had this to say about the young third baseman in the Rockies’ system:

He’s more “baseball athlete” than “true athlete,” a below-average runner with good hands and a strong arm but thick legs and slightly slow feet. To stay at third base, he’ll have to do everything right with his upper body to make up for what his lower half prevents him from getting, but he seems to have the work ethic and makeup to do it.

In no way is this meant as a gotcha — this represents the feeling at the time about Arenado’s defense. He was a bat looking for a position. There weren’t many mentions of gold gloves in his future.

A year later, things had changed already, if just a little bit. Mark Anderson, in comparing Arenado to Anthony Rendon, had this to say about the young third baseman in Colorado’s system:

The report on Arenado’s defense has changed dramatically over the last year. In 2011 scouts reported improved reactions and footwork at third to go along with his now solid hands. While several scouts I spoke with last year tossed a future 55-grade on Arenado’s glove work, I was a little more cautious in my own assessment. I believe many of the gains seen last year were real but I still firmly believe he maxes out as a steady, average defender.

Looks like cautious optimism moved in where cautious pessimism used to live. While nobody questioned his arm much, there is a focus on Arenado’s lower half. ‘Thick legs that don’t move well’ was still part of the prognosis.

Arenado agreed that his lower half was a problem before a game against the Giants this week. “I was out of shape,” the third baseman admitted. “I wasn’t moving real well.” The team put an emphasis on his defense and health, and responded with a diet program for Arenado.

Infield coordinator Scott Fletcher had some help from Jerry Weinstein, and Arenado appreciated their attention. They had him working on “lateral movement stuff,” including “how to go to the ball, how you use your glove, and how to field it,” as the third baseman put it. “They both helped me big time.”

Skip to 1:35, and it certainly does look like Arenado’s lower half is a tad slow and perhaps thick 2011.

If fielding is one part hands, one part feet, and one part anticipation, Arenado felt he at least had one thing going in. “I always knew my hands were there when I was younger,” he said. “I think my feet weren’t there.”

The work was difficult for the youngster. “We practiced how to go to the ball, different movements — we were trying to create a better habit,” he said. “It was hard. It was hard in the beginning, because I wasn’t very good at it.” But hard work on his positioning, combined with diet and a new training regimen that focused on slimming Arenado down and improving his quickness, paid off in the end.

Now in 2014, Arenado is leaner, quicker, and more direct to the ball.

Though some third baseman prefer to start low — Arenado said he admired David Wright and Scott Rolen for their low approaches — the Rockies’ third baseman is more upright. For him, it’s a feel thing, and he didn’t feel good getting low. “I never felt good, I felt I couldn’t get to the ball, I didn’t feel very athletic. I felt flat-footed,” he said of starting low. “I like to start up, constantly moving. For me, starting tall, I feel like I can react in any direction.”

That puts Arenado in a camp with Matt Dominguez, who once told me that he felt quicker on defense when he was taller. Wright felt it was “easier to go up then to go down.” Either way, the Rockies’ third baseman has found the beginning stance that fits him best, and it looks just a little bit like the stance of the guy standing to his left at shortstop.

Along with a new stance, a new lower half, and a better approach to the ball, the arm and hands he’s always had make him a plus defender at third. For that, Nolan Arenado can thank a lot of hard work and the careful attention of the organization that developed him.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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7 years ago

thanks for this. I get to go seem him play tonight–now I have a few things to look for. “Thick” is not a description I’d have applied to him now. maybe it’s the pinstripes?