The first time I was in the Colorado Rockies' clubhouse last year, Nolan Arenado was recovering from a rough day. It was the day after he had been benched by manager Walt Weiss for not running out a ground ball. He stood before members of the Denver media and apologized not just for that play, but specifically to the reporters for not being available the night after the benching.
That made an impression on me. But as awkward as such an apology might be, he still took the time to look at me, trying to figure out who this new writer guy in the clubhouse is.
This Tuesday at the All-Star Game, baseball fans will get a better opportunity to see who he is.
Drafted as a high school senior by the Rockies in the second round of the 2009 draft, his minor league career didn’t receive as much hype as fellow draftees Stephen Strasburg or Mike Trout, and some of what was said about him was negative. He was thought of as a bit of a stocky, bat-first prospect who might not hit for much power and most likely couldn’t handle the hot corner defensively. Nonetheless, by 2011 he was the MVP of that year’s Arizona Fall League and batted cleanup during that year’s Rising Stars Game in a lineup that featured Trout and another hyped prospect, Bryce Harper. Yet in 2012 as a 20-year-old in Double-A, facing pitchers two to three years older than him, he struggled offensively with a slash line of .285/.337/.428. Coupled with questions about his makeup as well as his ability to be a dependable fielder at third base, as Scott Stranberg from FanGraphs noted, by the end of 2012 “MLB.com dropped him from their top-50 list, ESPN dumped him from their top 100, Baseball Prospectus bumped him down a full 37 spots on their list, etc. ... The real odd thing is that Arenado was pretty good in 2012.”
It took work, but for a guy who told Root Sports’ Jenny Cavnar that he had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, baseball was his medicine and helped him focus some of that intensity that had previously led to questions about his makeup. Troy Tulowitzki, one of Arenado’s mentors, said, “Most people in this locker room had a lot of success in their early years, so when they get to the big leagues and deal with failure or even the minor leagues and deal with failure for the first time, it’s tough to take.”
Arenado, struggling in the minor leagues, began to make adjustments. As described by Eno Sarris in a FanGraphs article in September, the Rockies put an emphasis on Arenado’s diet and on his defense, and he bought into it, working with coaches Scott Fletcher and Jerry Weinstein. The scouting reports improved, and Arenado was promoted to the major leagues in 2013.
Arenado didn’t hit all that well as a 22-year-old in his rookie season, notching a somewhat meager .267/.301/.405 line, “good” for a .703 OPS through 514 plate appearances. That line was helped by a .793 OPS at Coors Field, but was weighed down by a poor road OPS of .619 and a mere .652 OPS against right-handers. Bat be darned for the bat-first prospect, though; the work on his defense paid off as he won his first Gold Glove.
In 2014, his hitting started catching up with his fielding. He broke the Rockies' franchise record with a 28-game hitting streak, and that consistent approach showed up in his splits as he increased his road OPS to .713 and performed better against right-handers to the tune of a .776 OPS. Even with a season interrupted by a broken thumb, he managed an .828 OPS overall, improving by 125 points from 2013 and hitting 18 home runs.
Turning the page to this year, Arenado has become a complete player. He's hitting .291 and is tied for the major league lead in RBIs with 69 while tied for fourth in the National League in home runs with 24. The splits have been healthy as well, as Arenado is hitting against right-handers to the tune of a .971 OPS and has a virtually even home (.918) and road (.933) OPS, with 15 of his 24 home runs coming on the road. The stellar defense is still there this year as he leads all third basemen in ultimate zone rating (7.6) and defensive runs saved (15).
In the middle of a career year, fulfilling the potential once glimpsed in his bat coupled with defense that no one saw coming, what does Arenado think has changed the most for him?
“The experience factor has made a huge difference for me,” Arenado said. “Knowing who I am as a ballplayer. When you first start off, you don’t really know who you are or what you need to do, and once I found out what I needed to accomplish and what made me feel good, that’s when things started changing for the better.”
So who is Arenado as a fielder? Weiss recently said, “You hear Brooks [Robinson]’s name. ... It’s difficult to compare players from different eras, but in the years I’ve been around this game, I’ve never seen anything like him and I’ve seen some real good ones. He’s one of a kind ... but if you take the best tools you’ve ever seen at third base and put all those tools into one guy, that’s what he is.”
Recognized by his fellow players and by statisticians with consecutive Gold Glove awards at third base, he’s earned more public recognition with his frequent appearances on ESPN's Web Gems, culminating in what some believe to be his signature defensive play on April 14 against the San Francisco Giants, when he dove over the tarp and into the stands to catch a foul ball. Not only did that play remind general baseball fans of a great catch by another baseball icon, Derek Jeter, but Arenado also had the presence of mind to throw the ball immediately to third base to try for a double play.
Nick Groke of the Denver Post interviewed Arenado about many of his defensive highlights and learned more about what was going through his mind on each play. Arenado has a keen sense of how fast the batter is getting down the line and is aware not only of where any baserunners are, but his own ability to make the putout or the double play.
He also uses that awareness to help his teammates. When the sun is low on the horizon at Coors Field, Arenado will bounce his throws in the dirt to make it easier for Rockies first basemen to catch it. When catcher-turned-first-baseman-in-training Wilin Rosario is manning the bag, he takes an extra split second to make a clean throw.
If, as the splits say, Arenado is not just a Coors Field creation offensively, then who is he, really? Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs thinks that Arenado most resembles one of his idols, Adrian Beltre. According to Ben Lindbergh from Grantland, Arenado could eclipse Manny Machado as baseball’s best all-around young third baseman.
Yet when it comes down to it, it is more telling to find out how Arenado wants people to see him. During the offseason, he told Thomas Harding from MLB.com that he wanted to be “a better leader, a better player overall, fix my game, make sure I come in healthy and be strong.” He echoed that to me during this season: “I want to be ‘a dude,’ a guy that can help the team win. Mike Trout is a guy, Adam Jones, Clayton Kershaw, those are dudes, the big dogs. ... I’m always trying to help the team win. Just trying to help the pitcher out on defense and all those guys who have great at-bats before me, which is why I am in the position to drive in runs.
“I’m still growing. I’m getting stronger. I’m a line-drive hitter.”
As he’s figuring out who he is and keeps working at his craft, those line drives are going a lot farther. I’ll take that makeup any day.