What the Rockies Have In Nolan Arenado

It’s been a good stretch for Nolan Arenado. In the past seven games, he’s hit eight home runs. Going back seven games is an arbitrary endpoint, so, in the five games preceding, Arenado hit either a double or a triple. After a May 23 doubleheader, Arenado was batting .257; since then, he’s batted .333, and far more importantly, he’s slugged .811. Now, the Rockies themselves haven’t necessarily felt it. They’ve played .500 baseball over the course of Arenado’s hot stretch, and it’s not a team that’s about to compete. But the Rockies are no strangers to playing ordinary baseball while getting extraordinary performances. This time we just get to look beyond Troy Tulowitzki.

I’m not all that interested in trying to analyze Arenado while he’s on fire. There’s only so much to be said about a short-term awesome performance, and in a case like this, I think it’s best to just take a step back and try to consider the bigger picture. Arenado is starting to get a little more attention. God knows he deserves it. He’s not a mediocre player in the middle of doing well; he’s a good player in the middle of being amazing. Have we seen a player like Nolan Arenado before? What kind of asset is he, to the Rockies? In the interest of honesty, I went into this with an idea already in mind. It was just a matter of collecting evidence. I don’t think the initial bias invalidates the conclusion.

You understand the concept of player comps. It’s all about isolating players with similar traits, based mostly on their statistics. This is frequently done when trying to tell a given player’s future, and that’s fraught with issues, but it’s a useful process. One four-win player might be completely unlike another four-win player, and it can be instructive to find other players with similar skillsets. Arenado has a pretty particular skillset. I decided to look at the whole pool of players in the majors since 2002, which is as far back as we have some worthwhile data.

Let’s start thinning the pool of comps, shall we? Easy enough to begin. Arenado is an above-average defender. Really, he’s an incredible defender, but for these purposes, we’ll stick with above-average. So I eliminated all the players in the pool with Defense ratings of 0.0 or below.

Next: well, Arenado is an above-average hitter, right? This year, he’s well above average, but even for his career, his wRC+ is 105, and he seems to be improving. So from the remaining players, I eliminated all the guys with wRC+ figures of 100 or below.

Already, that’s cleared a lot of names. But there’s no sense in stopping. Arenado is an aggressive hitter, sometimes over-aggressive by his own admission. You can see this reflected by Arenado’s swing rate. So from the remaining players, I eliminated all the guys with swing rates below 50%.

But, also, Arenado is a pretty accomplished contact hitter. Despite his elevated swing rate, Arenado’s good about getting the bat to the ball, so from the pool, I got rid of the guys with contact rates below 80%. Arenado doesn’t compare well to a pure hacker. He’s not that kind of undisciplined.

Lastly, Arenado’s a hitter with power. He’s already set a career high with 24 home runs, and he’s hit 15 of those on the road. His career ISO at Coors is .237, but on the road it’s still .186. And, again, Arenado seems to be getting better as he matures. Setting a somewhat low threshold, from the few remaining names, I got rid of the guys with ISO marks below .150.

That left me with a group of three players, Arenado excluded. The small pool of comps:

Sandoval works as an aggressive-swinging third baseman, but obviously Sandoval is his own kind of unusual, and he’s not the defender that Arenado is. Perez fits decently well, but of course he’s a backstop, and he fits less well if you believe that Arenado is developing into a real plus hitter. Perez’s progress is less dramatic, and we don’t know what he’d do as a hitter if he didn’t have his current defensive responsibilities. That takes us to Beltre. Which is exactly where I thought this might end up. When I started the investigation, I figured that Nolan Arenado seems to have a lot in common with Adrian Beltre. As it turns out, that might be the very best comp.

Forget about ages. Just think about the profiles. Both Arenado and Beltre are relatively free swingers, but unlike certain free swingers, they can do damage on pitches out of the zone. And their swing rates don’t reflect a lack of discipline; it’s more about mostly-controlled aggression. There’s power in there from the right side, mostly to left and left-center, and Beltre has struck out less often as he’s aged. He became more of a contact hitter when he got out of Seattle. Arenado has avoided strikeouts, even when he was an underwhelming rookie.

And there’s the defense at third base. The inarguably elite defense at third base. Beltre’s defense is a core component of his Hall-of-Fame case. Beltre’s also been an idol of Arenado’s, and while Arenado wasn’t considered a great defensive third baseman when he was younger, he’s exceeded all expectations in that regard. He’s one of the best defensive players in baseball, beloved by DRS even more than he’s beloved by UZR. (And UZR loves him.) Beltre himself is a rather big Arenado fan. The defense sets for Arenado a high floor; the progression of his offense puts Arenado on the verge of establishing himself as one of the game’s true greats.

A shorter version: let’s accept that both Beltre and Arenado hit for good power. This is a swing you might see from Adrian Beltre:

Meanwhile, these are defensive plays you might see from Adrian Beltre:

The game of baseball recognizes Arenado’s defensive brilliance. There’s no faking that. And while defense gradually gets worse as most players age, Arenado will be declining from the highest of heights, and his bat has progressed from the one he swung rather unimpressively in 2013. Arenado still hasn’t batted 1,500 times in the majors. He turned only 24 in the middle of April. He’s younger than Devon Travis, and Kevin Plawecki, and Michael Taylor. He’s just a few months older than Mike Trout. With Troy Tulowitzki coming up on 31, it’s worth wondering when Arenado will become the best player in Colorado. There’s some chance he’s already there.

Even today, Nolan Arenado is anything but a household name. He plays for a reasonably forgettable baseball team, and unlike Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, he isn’t a trade candidate. Compared to other players of his ability, Arenado remains somewhat unknown. But the easiest way to think of it is that the Rockies have Adrian Beltre at third base. Adrian Beltre, at two-thirds the age.

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

Have you tried touching Arenado’s head?

6 years ago
Reply to  tz

They’re not perfect comps for each other; in Arenado’s case, it’s probably some other body part.