Nolan Arenado’s Slump Adds to Cardinals’ Woes

Nolan Arenado
Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

Nolan Arenado could have won the National League Most Valuable Player award last year, though he lost out to teammate Paul Goldschmidt, who gave chase to the Triple Crown and finished with the more eye-catching traditional stats (but slightly lower fWAR and bWAR). But while Goldschmidt has been similarly productive this year amid the Cardinals’ dreadful start — indeed, his three homers on Sunday helped end the team’s eight-game losing streak — the same can’t be said for Arenado, who’s off to an uncharacteristically bad start.

Between compiling their worst record through 35 games in half a century and making the puzzling decision to move marquee free agent Willson Contreras off of catcher, the Cardinals are such a mess that I mentioned Arenado only in passing on Monday. He’s nowhere near the team’s biggest problem, yet at the same time, the 32-year-old third baseman is hitting just .232/.282/.326 for a 69 wRC+ thus far. His 82-point drop from last year’s 151 wRC+ is the majors’ second-largest among players with at least 400 plate appearances last year and 100 this year:

Largest wRC+ Drop-Offs from 2022 to ’23
Name Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ AVG 23 OBP 23 SLG 23 wRC+ 23 Dif
José Abreu 2Tm .304 .378 .446 137 .225 .272 .268 50 -87
Nolan Arenado STL .293 .358 .533 151 .232 .282 .326 69 -82
Aaron Judge NYY .311 .425 .686 207 .261 .352 .511 134 -73
George Springer TOR .267 .342 .472 132 .210 .273 .304 63 -69
Starling Marte NYM .292 .347 .468 136 .213 .292 .278 68 -68
Andrés Giménez CLE .297 .371 .466 140 .220 .294 .325 73 -67
Josh Naylor CLE .256 .319 .452 117 .198 .252 .315 52 -65
Carlos Correa MIN .291 .366 .467 140 .193 .271 .378 79 -61
Manny Machado SDP .298 .366 .531 152 .252 .303 .389 93 -59
Julio Rodríguez SEA .284 .345 .509 146 .210 .278 .399 91 -55
Jose Miranda MIN .268 .325 .426 117 .219 .275 .313 65 -52
Amed Rosario CLE .283 .312 .403 103 .217 .262 .300 53 -50
Elvis Andrus 2Tm .249 .303 .404 105 .208 .291 .264 57 -48
Jurickson Profar 2Tm .243 .331 .391 110 .210 .304 .328 62 -48
Andrew Benintendi 3Tm .304 .373 .399 122 .270 .324 .325 77 -45
Minimum 400 plate appearances in 2022 and 100 plate appearances in ’23.

Arenado, whose 207-point drop in slugging is also the majors’ largest at these cutoffs, isn’t the only MVP-caliber player struggling. Judge, the reigning AL MVP, hasn’t come close to replicating last year’s astronomical numbers, though he’s still an above-average hitter. Machado, who finished between Goldschmidt and Arenado in the NL MVP voting (and edged both in WAR), is scuffling nearly as badly as his fellow third baseman. Several recent All-Stars besides those players (Benintendi, Giménez, Marte, Rodríguez, and Springer) are represented above as well. That’s baseball, Suzyn.

To look at Arenado’s stats is to play “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” because a whole lot of his numbers are out of whack relative to last year and his longer track record. The overarching theme that emerges upon closer inspection is that he’s losing the battle to control the strike zone, and his contact is the poorer for it. Swing rates start stabilize to at 50 PA, so it’s noteworthy that he’s offering at 51.9% of all pitches, his highest rate since his 2013 rookie season, and up from 48.4% last year. Likewise when it comes to his 40.2% chase rate, up from 36.1% last year. His 11.4% swinging-strike rate is his highest ever, up nearly three points from last year’s 8.6%, and two points above his norm.

All of that fits into the pattern of a player who’s pressing. That wouldn’t be surprising under the circumstances, which in this case include a reigning division champion that even amid a two-game winning streak — the second of which Arenado sat out on Monday night — owns the NL’s worst record at 12–24.

Pitch-wise, Arenado’s whiff rates are particularly elevated against four-seam fastballs (20.7%, up from last year’s 13.3%), changeups (34.6%, up from 23.2%), sliders (33.8%, up from 25.6%), and curves (26.3%, up rom 20.6%), which together account for about 72% of the pitches he’s seen. Overall, his 20.8% strikeout rate is the highest of his career, six percentage points above his career rate and nearly double last year’s 11.6% rate. Meanwhile, his 6.7% walk rate is his lowest mark since 2015, and down 1.7 points from last year.

So, he’s making contact less, and when he does, it’s not great. Arenado is hitting the ball on the ground more than ever, and his average exit velocity, barrel rate and hard-hit rates are the lowest of his career:

Nolan Arenado Batted Ball Stats
Season BBE GB/FB GB% FB% EV Barrel% HardHit%
2019 503 0.80 36.0% 44.7% 89.4 6.8% 37.6%
2020 166 0.79 37.3% 47.0% 87.8 5.4% 33.7%
2021 504 0.63 31.3% 49.8% 89.0 6.7% 37.1%
2022 489 0.59 29.7% 49.9% 88.7 8.2% 38.9%
2023 108 1.24 43.5% 35.2% 86.9 3.7% 33.3%

I’ve only gone back as far as 2019, but the data covers some peaks and valleys, starting with that 41-homer season, then a rough and unhappy 2020 that was marred by his playing though an AC joint injury. His 2021 was a partial rebound, with 34 homers but just a .312 on-base percentage and 113 wRC+, down 18 points from his 2017–19 run. Then came last year’s stellar campaign, in which he hit .293/.358/.533 and set career bests with a 150 wRC+ and 7.3 WAR.

The only other time besides this season in which Arenado has ever had a groundball rate above 40% was in his 2013 rookie season; playing half his games in Coors Field, he quickly learned the advantage to getting the ball off the ground and into the thin air. He’s had only one other season with a groundball-flyball ratio above 1.0, and that was in 2018 (1.03, with a 39.9% groundball rate).

Through the years, Arenado’s Statcast numbers have generally been pretty middling. Aside from last year’s barrel rate, which placed in the 53rd percentile, he hasn’t had an exit velo, barrel rate, or hard-hit rate in the 50th percentile or above since 2019. Even in the best of times, he makes a lot of bad contact — balls that Statcast classifies as weak, topped, or under but that are somewhat elusive in their exact parameters. Via the Baseball Savant Pitch Highlighter link (under Visuals from the main Baseball Savant menu — I share this because I can’t find it without breadcrumbs), you can get a feel for them via those fancy interactive radial graphs, where rollovers illustrate each type of contact and how the hitter has performed within that category. For example, here are screenshots for his topped balls — those with low exit velocity and mostly negative launch angles — for 2022 and ’23:

If you squint at the stat lines near the bottom, you can see that he’s hitting more of those as a percentage of his batted balls, and that his batting average on them has fallen by nearly half. Indeed, balls in the weak, topped, and under buckets rarely go for hits. Last year, those accounted for 60.4% of Arenado’s batted ball events, on which he hit .103 and slugged .155; for 2015–22, they make up 60.8% of his batted balls, with a .136 AVG and .194 SLG. This year, they make up 64.8%, his highest rate save for his dismal 2020 (71.1%), and on those, he’s hitting and slugging just .087; he’s actually a bit unlucky on those, given his .124 xBA and .155 xSLG. That’s contributing to him falling short of his overall expected numbers for the first time in the Statcast era:

Nolan Arenado Statcast Expected Stats
Season BBE AVG xBA Dif SLG xSLG Dif wOBA xwOBA Dif
2019 503 .315 .270 +.045 .583 .480 +.103 .392 .343 +.049
2020 166 .253 .235 +.018 .434 .392 +.042 .308 .288 +.020
2021 504 .255 .248 +.007 .494 .420 +.074 .336 .311 +.025
2022 489 .293 .266 +.027 .533 .445 +.088 .381 .339 +.042
2023 108 .232 .244 -.012 .326 .354 -.028 .268 .285 -.017

I’ve only shown the the past four seasons plus this one here, but the trend goes back to 2015. I don’t know if that’s a Coors Field thing or if Arenado has lived a charmed life, but every single year, he outdid his xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA, a trend that continued to St. Louis. Five times in eight seasons, his slugging percentage was at least 81 points higher than expected. This year, for the first time, he’s lagging behind his expected stats, and so his 91-point year-to-year drop in xSLG becomes the aforementioned 207-point drop in actual slugging percentage.

Even with that in mind, Arenado is struggling as badly as he ever has in terms of power. Here’s his rolling xSLG over 75 PA:

Arenado has taken some of the blame for the team’s slow start and vaguely acknowledged issues with his swing. Via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Lynn Worthy:

Arenado’s timing has been out of whack at the plate, and he has been trying to sort through issues with his swing and described himself as “a little disconnected” mechanically.

“It’s unfortunate,” Arenado said. “I think if we were winning, I probably wouldn’t be worried about it so much. But the fact that we’re losing, it feels a lot worse because I’m not playing my part. That comes with the territory, I guess. I expect to fix it. I’m working hard on it, and hopefully today is a good day.”

On the timing note, the slugger’s performance against four-seam fastballs particularly stands out and also points back to the SLG-xSLG gap:

Nolan Arenado vs Four-Seam Fastballs
All 4-Seam % PA AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA Whiff%
2019 37.2% 213 .309 .247 .574 .459 .388 .327 16.3%
2020 38.4% 81 .303 .259 .553 .449 .370 .315 9.7%
2021 32.1% 201 .223 .229 .457 .429 .304 .303 14.0%
2022 28.7% 170 .311 .243 .583 .431 .412 .333 13.3%
2023 26.9% 39 .176 .224 .382 .400 .277 .304 20.7%
95+ Four-Seam % PA AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA Whiff%
2019 13.9% 93 .269 .230 .355 .405 .362 .313 13.8%
2020 14.00% 26 .320 .306 .346 .536 .396 .369 16.7%
2021 10.9% 72 .297 .279 .347 .430 .377 .337 16.5%
2022 10.7% 69 .350 .255 .420 .401 .404 .335 19.6%
2023 9.1% 11 .182 .213 .182 .426 .299 .268 14.7%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Arenado’s slugging percentage against all four-seamers has fallen off by 201 points relative to last year, yet his xSLG against them is down only 31 points. His general performances against the pitch have varied, often out of step with the rest of his lines (note the strong 2020 in an otherwise weak year, followed by a drop-off in what was otherwise a much stronger campaign). A peek at his performances against heaters 95 mph or higher shows more consistent work from 2019 to ’22, with a drop this season that may just owe to sample size. He’s actually whiffing less against those pitches, and his xSLG on them is actually higher, all of which brings to mind Ben Clemens’ Abreu-flavored investigation into year-to-year correlations (or the lack of them) when we get this granular. Short version: whiff rates on four-seamers of 95 mph or more correlate reasonably well from year to year, but run values — which summarize the quality of contact as well as the swings-and-misses — don’t.

All of which is to say that I don’t think this is the beginning of the end for Arenado. He’s in a bad slump that may owe something to the self-induced pressure of not producing as his team hits the skids, but that’s not to suggest he won’t get out of it. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that fixing his swing is still probably easier to do than remaking a lackluster rotation that’s scapegoating the new catcher.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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11 months ago

It really feels like he’s walking a tightrope with his power. It feels like if he doesn’t pull it right down the line, he doesn’t have enough power to get the ball over the wall.

11 months ago
Reply to  raregokus

I didn’t realize how pull-heavy his approach was. He hasn’t hit an opposite field home run since 2019. That’s… crazy. Granted, pull home runs count the same in the score book but his spray chart the last few seasons is pretty wild.

11 months ago
Reply to  raregokus

Yep I posted this last week:

Goldy has been business as usual, but the collapse (thus far) of Arenado has really hurt them. His batted ball metrics have been bad for a long while (seriously look when the last time he hit a HR to CF was, 2020) he has always made the most of the profile by extreme fly balls right down the line. It always struck me as the thing old men do at the end of their career….but then he has been good to great with STL, until now. Back in 2018 he used to hit the ball with authority all over the field, now he can only pull the ball, and with less authority. I have thought about him a fair bit over the years, basically he wasn’t a power hitter on contact. He was a contact hitter who had an extreme fly ball approach (highest in league) who ended up hitting a lot of home runs just because he hit the ball in the air a lot to the shortest part of the field exclusively. Now that he has nearly doubled his K%, has below average max ev, one of the worst in the league avg ev, it sort of seems like a recipe for disaster. With that said, he was horrible in 2020 as well and bounced back, so this could be the same thing. But being bad at a much older age makes it seem less likely.

And even in 2020 it was only 1 home run to CF.