We’ve gotten to see many sides of Nolan Arenado over the past two years. The maker of ridiculous defensive plays. The hitter of a multitude of home runs. The effusive trotter of the base paths. With regard to his plate discipline, however, Arenado hasn’t changed much since he got to the majors. To call him a “free swinger” doesn’t really do him justice: between 2014 and -15, Arenado ranked 10th in overall swing percentage (53.5%) and eighth in swing percentage at pitches outside of the strike zone (38.7%). As a result, he hasn’t walked much since he was called up in 2014 — at just over half the league average the past two years — which, hey, is something you might do too if you had the talent and skill to hit 40-plus home runs in the major leagues. In 2015, he saw the 17th-fewest pitches per plate appearance out of qualified hitters. Arenado hasn’t really waited around, is the point. He’s been aggressive in and out of the zone, and the trade-off has been fewer free passes. The reward was ten first-pitch home runs last season.
Swinging as much as Arenado has in the past two years tends to require other skills to offset/complement that tendency, like above-average contact rates, great power, or speed on the base paths. An illustration: of the ten leaders in overall swing percentage from 2015, five had below-average contact rates:
The best wRC+ mark of any of those players was Marte, with 117, who supplemented his batting line with 30 stolen bases; only one other, Jones, recorded an above-average hitting mark (109 wRC+). This is territory where hitters walk a very fine line, and they usually need to bring something else to the table if they’re swinging that much and missing a lot of pitches. For Marte, it’s speed; for Arenado (who has an above-average contact rate), it’s absurd home-run power.
One quick primer, before we go any further: this early in the season, a lot of what we’re doing is looking for trends in the statistics that stabilize quickly. While stabilization isn’t exactly a point — it’s more of a sloped line — it’s right around this two-week mark that we can start identifying (and putting a little weight behind) the signal in the noise in swing and strikeout rates (there’s been research that supports swing and strikeout rates stabilizing at around 50-60 plate appearances). It’s exciting when we notice players on the cusp who are trying to take meaningful steps toward greater success, and it can be even more exciting — and certainly more intriguing — when we notice established players who are continuing to try to get better. And, with that primer in mind, we find Arenado in the latter group.
You might see where this is going. If we trust the plate-discipline stats we currently have on the books for 2016, what we’ve seen in 2014 and 2015 might be the old Arenado in more than just the Minkowski understanding of spacetime, as the young slugger has looked like a changed man at the plate in 2016. There are many ways that we can look at this potentially new Arenado. The first — indeed, the most straightforward — is to simply point out the difference in his current swing rates as compared to those from his previous seasons. That method is presented here:
The most encouraging change is the almost 10 percentage-point reduction in swing rate at pitches outside of the strike zone. But Arenado’s been more patient in general, too, even on pitches in the zone. It’s not too difficult to see how he’s tightened up his swing zone from looking at a heat-map comparison between last season and this one:
He’s showing a reduction all over the zone, but it’s the high and outside pitch that he’s especially laid off in the early going of 2016. That makes a lot of sense, given that area was the weak point in his swing last season — even though most hitters don’t tend to be able to handle high and outside pitches well. Arenado is a heavy pull hitter (he was top 20 in Pull% last year and has actually increased his pull tendency so far this season), so it makes intuitive sense that he would try to stop swinging at pitches he’d have more difficulty driving to left field.
Indeed, as August pointed out in March, no one did more damage to the pull side than Arenado last season, and he’s hit every single one of his career home runs to left or center field. In lieu of trying to learn how to drive a high and outside pitch the other way, why not just lay off it completely?
There are other early indicators to which we can point that hint at Arenado’s attempt to become a more honed version of the home-run demon we saw last year: he’s running a fly-ball rate almost 10 points higher than the one he posted last season, and his average fly ball/home run distance has jumped by about 12 feet in the early going. His out-of-zone contact rate is through the roof compared to last season (+16.9 points), which is helping to drive his microscopic strikeout rate (6.2%). It’s still too early to start accepting many of these data points as anything more than something interesting to monitor, but if Arenado wants to hit more home runs than he did in 2015 and be generally more productive on offense, that would be the way to do it.
Of course an interpretation of a player’s changes after a mere 15 games is fraught with potential ruin. Do we believe in Arenado’s better nature after 15 games, or do we choose to put most of our stock in the past two seasons? This is the question we face in every article in which we delineate beginning and end points to perceived trends, and never more so than in articles at the start of a season. Is Arenado showing signs that he could becoming a more patient, productive hitter? Absolutely. Does that mean this early trend will continue? The fun part is the finding out.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.