Nolan Arenado Defies the Easy Narrative

Nolan Arenado certainly proved a whole lot of people wrong this year. Just two years ago, Arenado’s media perception took an unreasonably large hit. A rumor floated around that he was unhappy about not being promoted, he put up a bad month, and suddenly he was labeled as a whiner. He now had “makeup issues.”

Even if it was fair to be asking questions about his character, Arenado’s fall from grace in the eyes of the baseball media was nothing short of amazing. 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 point here is not to single out any of these outlets. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The point is to illustrate how pretty much everyone took the “makeup issues” narrative and ran with it.

One notable exception? Our own Marc Hulet, who kept a level head, writing in February 2013 that “questions have been raised about his maturity level, but most young men his age (21) have questionable behavior at times, so he probably deserves a mulligan.” This is exactly what I didn’t understand at the time. What 21-year-old doesn’t have some maturity issues? (For example, when I was 21, I still thought that mixing box wine with Mt. Dew was an acceptable practice.)

The really odd thing is that Arenado was actually pretty good in 2012. His .285/.337/.428 slash was nothing to scoff at, and once you factor in league and park effects, his weighted offense was better in 2012 than it was in 2011, when he had the standout season that placed him so highly on top prospect lists in the first place. I guess what this piece is turning into is a warning of sorts about grasping the easy narrative with prospects.

But it is also ostensibly about Arenado’s 2014 production — and 2015 potential — so we should probably get around to that at some point. His rookie season wasn’t of much value to fantasy players, as he pretty much only hit lefties (and pretty much only at home). He finished outside the top 25 fantasy third basemen in 2013, and wasn’t seen as much of an option for 2014. Here at RotoGraphs, we had him at No. 17 among third basemen coming into the season.

The fact is that Arenado was the No. 11 3B in fantasy this year, despite missing over 50 games due to a broken finger, and later, pneumonia. When comparing production between his two major-league seasons, a great number of encouraging signs crop up that make me quite optimistic about his 2015 potential. First let’s just take a quick look at his slash lines in 2013/2014:

  • 2013 – .267/.301/.405, .706 OPS
  • 2014 – .287/.328/.500, .828 OPS

One reason I’m buying into Arenado’s 2014 so completely is that the 100+ point bump in his OPS applied to every split. As I mentioned before, he hit lefties well last year. He was even better this year, and guess by how much:

  • 2013 (vs L) – .296/.349/.496, .846 OPS
  • 2014 (vs L) – .313/.375/.598, .973 OPS

He was useful at home last year, but this year…

  • 2013 (home) – .298/.335/.459, .793 OPS
  • 2014 (home) – .303/.344/.584, .928 OPS

Now take a look at his improvement against righties, and playing away from Coors Field, the two aspects of his game that really suffered last year:

  • 2013 (vs R) – .256/.281/.370, .652 OPS
  • 2014 (vs R) – .278/.311/.466, .776 OPS
  • 2013 (road) – .238/.267/.352, .619 OPS
  • 2014 (road) – .269/.310/.403, .713 OPS

I really can’t recall another time I’ve seen such uniform improvement in a player’s splits from one year to the next. The things he was already good at got much better. The areas where he used to struggle are no longer hurting fantasy owners.

So now, we find ourselves at the point in the column when I explain why he was so much better, and then hopefully tie things off with a nice tidy bow. As it turns out, the reasons behind Arenado’s widespread improvement are quite numerous themselves. He improved his discipline stats across the board, chasing fewer pitches, generating fewer whiffs, drawing more walks, striking out less, the whole nine yards.

These things all factored into it in a significant way, but Arenado’s breakout in the power department in 2014 is largely what made him a top-12 fantasy 3B. Despite nearly 50 fewer plate appearances, he clubbed 18 homers this year, compared to the 10 he hit in 2013. The explanation here is beautifully simple, and another promising sign.

The first part is that Arenado’s batted-ball profile changed significantly. Whereas he had a 1.26 ground ball to fly ball ratio last year, this year he posted a 0.90 GB/FB rate. A very important side note to make here is that this increase in fly balls had no negative effect on his batting average. His BABIP this year (.294) was nearly identical to last year (.296), and his AVG gained 20 points.

The second part of the home-run equation is that when he hit balls in the air, he hit them harder, adding nearly nine feet to his average fly-ball distance — 280.30 feet in 2013, 289.24 feet in 2014. I said this was going to be simple, and I don’t like to lie unless I have to: How do you increase your home-run output? Why, hit more fly balls, and also hit them farther, of course!

This piece has kind of been all over the place, but I’m okay with that. I guess I had far more on my mind about Nolan Arenado than I thought I did. What it really comes down to is a guy I’ve always believed in — who had his reputation sullied to an excessive degree — defying the easy narrative people tried to pin on him.

I always like to say that one season does not a prospect break. In Arenado’s case, it was one bad month that largely led to his tarnished prospect status. I see him as a top-8 fantasy third baseman for 2015, with the potential to crack the top five.

Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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8 years ago

nice. I had him in several 12-team mixed leagues and he was off the wire. I don’t expect to find him there next year.