Nolan Arenado is one of the best hitters in the game. The 27-year-old third baseman has won four consecutive Silver Slugger awards, averaging a a 127 wRC+, 40 doubles, and 40 home runs over that stretch. Ensconced in the heart of the Colorado Rockies batting order, he’s driven in 503 runs, the most in MLB by a comfortable margin.
Like many players, Arenado has evolved. Unlike one of his new teammates, he’s done so in a more traditional —less nerdy, if you will — manner. On Tuesday we heard from Daniel Murphy on how he transformed himself into an elite hitter. Today we hear from Arenado.
David Laurila: We first talked during your 2013 rookie season. How have you most changed as a hitter since that time?
Nolan Arenado: “When I’m going well, I’m good at staying on my back leg. I didn’t do that back then. I was a front-leg hitter. That’s why I wasn’t driving the ball out of the ballpark. I was good at putting bat to ball in 2013, but that’s it. I was just slapping the ball for a knock.
“I had to learn how to be quicker without jumping at the ball. I had to learn to control the middle-inside pitch, because they were beating me there. I was kind of drifting, and I was getting jammed. In 2014, I started focusing on getting the head out.
“I learned to back-leg the baseball. Now I’m stepping back and sitting on that back leg. That allows me to create space to get my swing off. If I can get on my back leg and stay there, every pitch that’s [inner half] I’m able to be like, ‘Boom!,’ instead of back in the day, where I was just kind of going the other way.”
Laurila: How did you go about making the adjustment?
Arenado: “Initially off the tee, but honestly, when I first started learning it, I was learning it by pulling the ball. I’d never worked on pulling the ball. I’d always learned to go the other way. But I was kind of talking to Tulo, and other guys, and working on getting the head out. Especially in leverage counts. I’d think about left-center instead of right-center.”
Laurila: A number of hitters say that they’re up there looking to drive the ball over the center fielder’s head.
Arenado: “That’s what I think now. Back then I couldn’t think that, because I was such a staying-inside-the-ball hitter. I was like D.J. [LeMahieu] back in the day. I would shoot pitches on the inner half the other way, instead of making the pitcher pay by pulling them. Now I think about hitting it to center, and to left-center.”
Laurila: Have you changed anything with your hands?
Arenado: “I did change them a little bit, because I wanted to get my elbow up. When I went to the ball, I wanted to create that leverage. But do you know what, man? I honestly never think about my hands. I’ve always thought that if my legs are right — if I get my legs in the right position — my hands, and everything else, are going to be in the right spot.”
Laurila: Your walk rate was 4.5% as a rookie. The past few years it’s been around 10%. Is that mostly a sign of respect, or have you become a lot more patient?
Arenado: “I think it’s both. I’m going up there with a feeling of knowing how this guy is going to approach me. I have a pretty good idea of what he’s going to do. I do my homework. I know the situations — are there guys on base, who is up after me. Little things like that. I’m paying more attention to certain things.”
Laurila: Daniel Murphy just told me that he doesn’t think of hitting as reactionary, but rather as anticipatory.
Arenado: “I try to react to certain pitches. The inside pitch is a reaction pitch. At the same time, I do anticipate a ball being in a certain area, so that I can get my best swing off. I agree with him.”
Laurila: Are hitting analytics something you pay attention to?
Arenado: “Kind of, but not really. There are certain things I take from them, but mostly I have to go up there and be ready to hit. I have to take the right approach. I have to be me.”
Laurila: ‘Launch angle’ is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days.
Arenado: “I never focus on lifting the baseball. I think about backspinning the baseball. Take a nice level swing and backspin the baseball. What people are doing now is thinking about lifting the ball, and getting the ball in the air. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but there’s a proper way to do it. It’s not just dip and drive. It’s getting to the ball in the right spot, with backspin; it’s staying on top of the baseball. That’s how you create leverage.”
Laurila: Handling elevated fastballs is challenging for a lot of hitters.
Areando: “If you’ve trying to swing up, you’re not going to be able to hit the high pitch. Personally, that’s why I think so many pitchers are having success nowadays. Everyone is trying to lift the ball, so they’re pitching up in the zone. When you’re swinging a certain way, you can’t get to it. So thinking ‘on top of the baseball,’ with a level swing — for me, personally — really works. And I think it’s going to work in the long run.”
Laurila: I was talking to Murphy about a hitter’s ‘A swing’ versus his ‘B swing.’
Arenado: “I always think about getting my A swing off. I always tell myself, ’get your best swing off.’ But do you know what? Some of the best advice I ever got was from a coach who said, ‘You can win with your A, B, or C swing; you’re good enough to win with any swing.’
“It’s a matter of going into the box with confidence. You can get caught up in the swing, and the mechanics of everything, but at the end of the day you have to be confident in the box. You have to go up there thinking you’re going to win. That’s what I do. I go up there with a lot of confidence.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.