Nolan Arenado – at just 25 years old – is the cornerstone player of the Rockies franchise and already one of the better players in the franchise’s young history. If you surveyed a bevy of baseball professionals to find with whom they would start their franchise, he would surely be one of the first players selected. So, I’m not going to shock anyone by saying that he’s getting better. After all, that’s what star quality, 25-year-old players do. They progress. But, Arenado has made an interesting change and has turned from a bit of a free swinger into a mature, patient hitter.
Arenado’s offensive profile has evolved every year of his career. After establishing himself as a defensive wunderkind in 2013, Arenado took a huge step forward in his sophomore campaign. His wOBA climbed from .308 to .359, and his wRC+, which heavily penalizes him for playing in Coors, jumped from 77 to 112. On top of that, he knocked out 18 home runs in only 467 plate appearances. Essentially, he went from an all-glove third baseman to a fairly good threat with the bat.
Then, last year, the power came in a big way. Arenado’s home run total jumped to a league-leading 42. However, over this period, Arenado had one lingering issue. His walk rate was abysmally low, floating around 5 percent. In 2016, things have changed. He’s nearly doubled that rate and now sits at 10.1 percent. Along with that, the continual rise of his wOBA and wRC+ has not skipped a beat with those jumping to career highs as well. Also, he still leads the NL in home runs, along with Kris Bryant.
Arenado’s approach versus offspeed pitches has been the huge change that’s spurred his advancement with both walks and better contact. In previous seasons, he has been susceptible to them low, outside the zone. Pitchers were getting him to swing at them frequently and generating the highest percentage of whiffs out of anywhere on his profile by a wide margin.
He cut nearly every rate by multiple percentage points on breaking balls that missed the strike zone low or outside. Obviously, cutting down on his swings against poor pitches allows him to generate more favorable counts, draw walks, and see better pitches. Even when down two strikes Arenado has seen large improvements.
The cuts to Arenado’s rates against offspeed pitches extends to within the strike zone as well. He’s cut his whiff rates drastically nearly everywhere in two strike counts. So, essentially, his patience is not only allowing him to draw more walks, but also to use that contact-heavy approach even more to his advantage when down in the count.
Arenado’s ability to see better pitches has, unsurprisingly, made him a better hitter when he puts the ball in play. As I mentioned before, Arenado has continually driven both his wOBA and wRC+ up. Currently, he sits at a .392 mark with a 128 wRC+. That’s definitely a far cry from the player that made his debut in 2013. When digging into the Statcast data, you can easily see why he keeps improving. First off, he’s putting the ball in play more frequently at optimal launch angles
He’s sitting in that sweet spot for home runs between 25 and 30 degrees about 2.5 percent more now at 7.8 percent. At the launch angle range that Alan Nathan keys in on, Arenado has hit with an average exit velocity of 94.4 mph and an average spin rate of just over 1,600 in 2016. That’s been good for 13 of his home runs, though his profile is generating more fly balls, which are up 4.4 percent. However, it’s working largely because of the increased speed at which he’s putting the ball in play and the fact that he plays most of his games in a thin-air environment.
Generally, Arenado is just plain hitting the ball harder. That’s going to be a good thing in most cases, regardless. However, with the extra bump he gets in Coors Field for 81 games, it further stretches the impact of his hits, especially when talking about putting the ball over the fence.
Like I said, it’s no surprise to anyone that Arenado’s getting better. But, he’s progressed in a way that not only shores up his largest hole as a hitter, but complements his best traits as well.
Anthony Rescan is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.
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