The Next Stage of Nolan Arenado

Walks, I think, have suffered from something of a marketing problem. And analysts were in large part responsible, back in OBP’s heyday 10 or 15 years ago. The walk felt underrated, and so in some circles it became maybe overrated. Analysts loved players who walked. But other players didn’t respond so well to that, because, to them, you don’t go up there trying to walk. You go up there trying to hit. In truth, everyone has always seen eye to eye — the goal is to reach base, by avoiding an out. But some damage was done. Low-walk players got tired of talking about their low walk totals. It seemed like a nonsense concern, coming from somewhere outside of the game.

Nolan Arenado has historically been a low-walk player. And, like others, he wasn’t real jazzed to talk about that. An excerpt from this past April:

Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado couldn’t have thought it possible that he’d receive so much attention for not swinging.
Although the interest in his walks elicited a bemused eye-roll and a sardonic, “Great topic,” Arenado had fun with the subject, and with teammate Carlos Gonzalez.

Arenado didn’t want to hear criticism about his low walks. And, without question, he’s been successful while aggressive. Yet walks aren’t really the point. Walks are a proxy. Drawing a walk means a hitter didn’t swing at too many pitches out of the zone. No hitter wants to swing at too many pitches out of the zone. If you read on in the linked article, you see Arenado talking about how he was seeing the ball better. Arenado talked about what felt like better discipline. That’s all anyone’s ever wanted. And, say, Arenado’s stat line looks new.

Or maybe it doesn’t. It really does depend on where you look. Just by wRC+, Arenado is following last year’s 118 with this year’s 120. Instead of slugging .575, he’s presently slugging .567. In some ways, Arenado’s almost exactly the same. Yet this time around, he’s making more contact. And, far more remarkably, this year’s Arenado is walking.

His actual zone rate hasn’t gotten lower. He’s not seeing more balls, but he’s seeing more balls, if that makes sense. Just last season, when Arenado was great, he drew 21 unintentional walks in 157 games. For this season, he’s drawn 49 unintentional walks in 125 games. There was a reference to Arenado having a walk-drawing contest with Carlos Gonzalez. Last year, Gonzalez drew 40. This year, he’s at 29. Arenado isn’t just beating him — he’s completely blowing him away. It’s not a real contest, with real stakes or anything, but Nolan Arenado is showing something. This isn’t something he’d shown.

You could use some perspective, so, there are 218 players who have batted at least 250 times in each of the last two seasons. For every player-season, I calculated K-uBB%, which is simply strikeout rate minus unintentional walk rate. Here now are the 10 biggest movers in the good direction:

Top 10 Discipline Improvers
Player 2015 K-uBB% 2016 K-uBB% Change
Kole Calhoun 17.5% 6.8% -10.7%
Nolan Arenado 13.7% 3.9% -9.7%
Wilson Ramos 16.3% 6.6% -9.7%
Brandon Belt 16.8% 7.6% -9.2%
Odubel Herrera 18.8% 10.4% -8.5%
Matt Carpenter 11.4% 3.1% -8.2%
DJ LeMahieu 9.9% 2.2% -7.7%
C.J. Cron 16.4% 8.7% -7.7%
Chris Owings 22.0% 14.9% -7.1%
Jordy Mercer 12.5% 5.5% -7.1%

Credit to Kole Calhoun — I had no idea. Speaks to the Angels’ season, and to Calhoun’s own low profile. But then there’s Arenado, alongside a resurgent Wilson Ramos. Arenado’s walks are up and his strikeouts are down. It’s tough to pull both those things off considering drawing walks requires deeper counts. But Arenado has done what he’s done, and the best explanation I can find is that he’s exercising plenty more patience with the low pitch.

This data comes from Baseball Savant. I focused on the lower third of the strike zone, and also the low areas out of the zone. There are 217 players who have seen at least 500 pitches in those regions in each of the last two seasons. Here are the biggest reductions in swing rate at those low pitches:

Biggest Drops In Low-Pitch Swing Rate
Player 2015 Low Swing% 2016 Low Swing% Change
Avisail Garcia 57.4% 47.4% -10.0%
Nolan Arenado 52.0% 42.2% -9.7%
Matt Joyce 37.6% 27.9% -9.7%
Todd Frazier 50.6% 42.6% -7.9%
Francisco Lindor 50.1% 42.9% -7.3%
Cameron Maybin 40.1% 33.3% -6.8%
Howie Kendrick 49.2% 43.0% -6.2%
Scooter Gennett 55.0% 49.0% -6.0%
Cameron Rupp 40.8% 35.1% -5.7%
Francisco Cervelli 39.5% 33.9% -5.6%

Once again, we find Arenado at -9.7%, in second place and tied with someone resurgent. Movement like this can mean something different for different hitters, but for Arenado, he’s just honing in, and trying to offer at fewer pitchers’ pitches. He’s looking more disciplined inside and outside of the zone. Just as a little more evidence, Arenado is hitting better with two strikes. In two-strike counts this year, Arenado has 27 walks and 70 strikeouts. In two-strike counts before this year, Arenado had 26 walks and 240 strikeouts. He’s become more comfortable waiting for a pitch, and he’s become more comfortable hitting in deeper counts. What that looks like is progress.

What’s certainly a little more strange is the lack of movement in wRC+. What does it all mean, if it isn’t ultimately making Arenado more dangerous? That’s a legitimate question, and to some extent, it’s possible that Arenado is finding himself a little caught in-between. Maybe he wants to be more aggressive. But then, he’s always been in charge of himself, so I imagine the decisions are up to him. And the way I see it, Arenado is setting up a stronger offensive foundation. He’s seeing pitches better. He’s reading breaking balls better. That should make him better than his alternate self. I think there’s another stage of Nolan Arenado we haven’t quite seen yet. I think he’s getting there. I think the walks are critical for his advancement.

Manny Machado didn’t walk much until 2015. He was a similar sort of player to Arenado, even though Arenado’s a year older. Something for Machado clicked, and he raised his game. He’s turned into a superstar, having this year achieved a healthy compromise between patience and aggressiveness. Machado was already really good, and Arenado has already been really good, but if there’s more in there, I think we’ll see it before long. Arenado might be in the process of making his Machado turn. In which case, what would be left? He’d have walks, contact, power, and defense. He isn’t much of a runner, but, that’s just a luxury. The other stuff is the important bits. Arenado does the other stuff.

For as long as he plays half the time in Colorado, Arenado is going to be underrated. That’s true no matter how good he becomes. He could become quite good. He was already fantastic before.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

I just want to say that this is some real cool analysis Jeff. I liked how you described your methodology. Thanks.