Nolan Arenado will never be Joey Votto. He’s too hyperactive, he’s too aggressive, and he knows it. He’s fine being Nolan Arenado, too. But that doesn’t mean the Rockies’ standout third baseman doesn’t struggle to find the perfect approach at the plate to fit his skill set.
Over the last two years, there hasn’t been so much of a yo-yo in his approach as a steady progression. “I’m just trying to be selective, as much as I can,” he said before a game with the Giants. “But I don’t want to get too selective, because that’s when I get tentative.”
A hitter in his own head is no good, but a hitter that swings at everything isn’t either. While Arenado’s swing rates have never swung below league average (he’s almost 10% above league average for his career), his reach rates have changed, signaling that the batter has indeed started to discern balls and strikes better. Watch his monthly reach rate haltingly improve over his career:
You can try to improve your selectivity by managing the swing/no swing decision, but there’s another way. The longer you let the ball travel, the more information you can glean from the pitch before you make the decision to swing or not swing.
Arenado talked about this phenomenon in the middle of 2014. “I’ve been able to stay back more, so I’m able to see the ball,” Arenado said then. “Last year I was so out on my front foot that everything was a strike or everything that was hittable I wasn’t able to hit.” He’s focusing on that back foot in order to slow things down — “More swinging on my back leg. Slowing the game down. A slow load. I used to be real fast and rushed in that respect.”
Is this something we could see in a hitter’s spray chart? it sounds like the further you let the ball travel, the more you focus on that back leg, the more you’re able to go to all fields. Looking at spray charts can cross your eyes, but BaseballHeatmaps takes the average angle of a hitter’s batted balls, and you can see a clear trend in Arenado’s chart.
Unfortunately, that negative angle is the left field line, so it looks like Arenado is pulling the ball more these days. Dan Farnsworth works with hitters on these things, and he thought this might be a struggle for Arenado due to the particularities of the Rockies’ swing:
“His hands get in front of his back elbow super early in his swing, so he doesn’t get into the zone as deep as some of the best hitters. However, he seems to make up for it by pushing his top hand out toward the pitcher, almost locking it out like Chase Utley does to stay on the ball. Most guys whose hands move forward as early as his tend to let the barrel come around and across the ball, so they either are dead-pull, cut their swings off, or both. He manages to still drive the ball around the field despite a different entry into the zone, though it does look almost forced. There has to be some kind of conscious thought going on there.”
Maybe you can see a little of what Farnsworth is talking about in this swing, which created a grand slam.
Let’s take a look at one still, which shows both that his hands are in front of his elbow early and that he kind of locks out his top hand.
Ask Arenado about it and he smiles. “I don’t think I could describe my swing to you,” he said. But going up the middle and staying in the zone is something he does work on — using one-handed drills, and focusing on hitting the ball back up the middle in the cage and in batting practice.
This hitter knows his faults. “I can get overaggressive,” he admits, with an added caveat. “I’ve got to give credit to the pitchers as well. Sometimes they can make you overaggressive.” And his ability to make contact will rescue him sometimes. “Sometimes I swing out of the zone, sometimes I get hits like that,” he added.
He’ll start with what he can do — “I’ve always been able to make contact with the ball. I want to put the ball in play.” — and try to refine it by looking for pitches in a certain zone and trying to take pitches up the middle. In the end, he’s not going to change completely, he’s only going to improve. “I can’t take away what I am entirely as a hitter,” he said, even as we discussed the different ways he was adjusting to major league pitching.
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.