AT BAT OR SNARING EVERYTHING HIT HIS WAY, NOLAN IS WORTH TUNING INTO ROCKIES GAMES EVERY NIGHT
Nolan Arenado, the glove king of the hot corner, has in many ways been a great surprise and a huge disappointment. And this year, he was both at the same time and worse, he developed the dreaded Tulo Disease, the ability to get injured in weird ways that cost many games. So, two years in (and I believe he has qualified as a Super 2 and thus is already arbitration eligible), what to make of Nolan and how to look at the 2014 season.
I said that he has been a surprise and a disappointment. The surprise has been very obvious – his glove. You can look back as recent as the offseason between 2011 and 2012 and there was still the debate of whether he would have to be moved to first base (which was good since Todd was retiring) but then would he hit for enough power to play at 1st. Well, whatever coaching he got in the minors worked miracles. His arm was always thought to be strong enough to play at 3rd, but his lack of speed and his footwork and the general feel for the glove was always questioned. But after some struggles his first month in 2013, he has been as good as 3rd baseman as have ever seen. I grew up watching the great Graig Nettles, whose 1978 World Series made people forget Brooks Robinson, but who never was revered as the great glove I though he was. In the 1980s Mike Schmidt and Buddy Bell were the gold standard for 3rd baseman along with Garry Gaetti and Tim Wallach later in the decade. In the 1990s there wasn’t a great glove person (Wade Boggs won 2 GG, which while he worked hard at it, really, 2 GG, well he was playing in NY then). Then in the 2000s Scott Rolen took the Gold Glove prize and made it his own possession in the NL. The 2000s and 2010s in the AL saw Eric Chavez, Adrian Beltre and Evan Longoria share out the award. We may be seeing the next great glove man, and for a player so young, who was not thought to be a great glove man, Nolan has a chance to become great player based only on the quality of his glove. Given the fact that the Rockies cannot afford any extra outs at home, just making all the plays is essential. But we have seen time and time again he turned a hit into a run or even better, a hit into a double-play. When both Tulo and Nolan are playing the left side of the infield, the impact on pitching ERA is measurable – sadly…they didn’t man the two positions as much as needed in 2014.
But the disappointment has been…hit bat. Oh you cannot talk about Nolan’s 2014 without mentioning his Rockies record hitting streak. I never expected him to be able to put together a hitting streak like that. But, the bigger issue has been his power. The days of 30 homers from the 3B spot appear to be in the past, but can the Rockies survive with only 10 homers and 18 homers (granted with a lot of missed time)? Especially when playing 81 at Coors? Even worse is that on the road, where they need homers here and there to give them runs immediately, Nolan hit a grand total of 2! Just 2 road homers. In 2013 he hit 5 at least. Nolan didn’t even have a road homer until after the All-Star break! Nolan has a very quick bat, and he is a line-drive hitter, and you don’t want to mess with his swing but…2 homers on the road? 18 total? He is a better hitter than that.
And in fact, his batting average has disappointed. As was said of too many players the past decade, a lot of scouts saw Nolan as a future batting champ. Now, he is only 244 games and 981 PA into his career, so it is way too early to say that he isn’t going to reach his offensive potential. But he hit only .267 his rookie year and only .287 even with the hitting streak, in 2014. Did the hand issues affect his swing in 2014? Maybe. But even at home he only hit .303, though his .353 OBP isn’t bad and his OPS of .928 at home is pretty good, with room to grow as we all expect he will (his BABIP is just .280 at home, but .310 on the road?!?). But his road numbers were, given his offensive talent, awful. He hit only .269, with an OBP of .310 a slugging of .403 and an OPS of just .713. When we ask how a team can be over .500 at home and 1962 Mets on the road, its performances like this that explain it all too well.
Offensively the one bright spot is that he got better in the 2nd half not at hitting (he hit .287 both halves), but in drawing walks. He only had 9 in the 1st half of the season, but nearly doubled that to 16 (still too few) in the 2nd half in 21 fewer PA. That is a positive sign. It seemed like all too often in the 1st half of 2014 he was in the hole 0-2 or 1-2, so the more he can work the count into hitters counts the more likely it is that we see him become a .300 plus hitter for the season and maybe .330-.340 at home.
One question is where Nolan is going to hit in the future. Some say that place in the order doesn’t matter but…I think it does. Advancing runners when you’re in the #2 spot vs. trying to score runs when you are in the bottom of the order (by trying to hit extra base hits) does play in. It showed up for Nolan. In the #2 spot, only 41 PA, he hit .270/.317/.804. In the #3 he hit (in 69 PA) .297/.348/.926. Those two are the places most people assume he will hit out of in the future. But what about Nolan in the big RBI spots, where due to injuries he got more time than any other. He actually did relatively well. In the big RBI spots, the #4, #5, and #6 spots, he hit in 143 PA .266/.331/.847 and in 111 PA .311/.351/.866, and in 64 PA .328/.328/.820. Can he hit for enough power to play in those spots? That is a great question. In the #7 spot, where he began the season, he hit for his worst average, in 39 PA Nolan only hit .231/.231/.538! Nolan is a very emotional player and I think he is impacted by expectations on him that those batting order spots can bring more than the average player.
How does count impact Nolan? I already mentioned he seems to get himself behind in the count a lot, and in fact he behind in the count and the outcome was realized 162 PA and still managed a .278/.290/.689, which isn’t bad, and the lack of power shows that when behind in the count he just tries to get the ball in play, and does so pretty well. What was interesting about 2014 was when he was ahead in the count he….stunk! In 128 PA ahead in the count he hit only .225 though with an OBP of .375 (26 of those PA ended in either a walk, HBP or sacrifice) and an OPS of .757. That one area is probably where Nolan can and should get better soon and it will impact his offensive impact hugely. His best outcomes are in even counts, where in 177 PA he hit .331/.330/.992 of this on first ball situations (72 PA) he hit .333/.338/1.077. He is clearly happiest going after that first pitch offering, and while pitchers will learn from that, they also want to get ahead and tend to throw fastballs, which he feasted on.
One final thing on Nolan’s offense. Even as his batting average has been poor, he has been viewed as a solid clutch hitter. It’s a tough thing to nail down, but there are a few ways to look at it. First, with runners in scoring position he hit .281/.339/.808 in 112 PA, not great but not bad and a lot of those PAs would take place against relief pitchers trying to protect a lead, so I think it is not a bad set of numbers. With 2-outs, which is an important setting, to extend innings and depending on the batting spot, bring up key batters, he hit .303/.349/.828 (again, giving up power for the sake of putting the ball in play), and we see that with the 2-out and RISP situation, he hit .283/.327/.805 in 49 PA, again, pretty good. In what baseball reference deems to be high leverage situations, in 97 PA he hit .349/.396/.974! That is outstanding, and it highlights how bad his hitting is in low-leverage situations how bad he is (197 PA) .234/.279/.681. Now, if he is going to stink you want to see it in low-leverage settings, and it points out that if he can increase his batting average 30 points in those settings it will help his overall output and likely help the team overall. But I think looking at all the numbers it is safe to say for a player who was playing in his age 23 season, he is a very good clutch/pressure situation hitter. If that stays true and this team can actually play meaningful games after May he might be the most important player on the team.
All this talk and I have not even begun to discuss the defensive metrics. Nolan did have a number of errors early in the season, primarily on balls in late-inning blowouts that he just muffed. I think it can be chalked up to the immaturity/lack of focus factors. He has to stop those kind of errors, and that is why his fielding percentage dropped from .973 to .959. I happened to think he made far more amazing plays in 2014 vs 2013, I mean jaw-dropping, rewind 3X, plays, every night, and in key situations. In 2013 he was able to get a UZR/150 of 22.5! In 2014 it fell to 6.3, not bad, but not what it looked like with the eye. His range factor also fell, which again doesn’t match the eye test but…well, as I have said before the advanced metrics for fielding still are not quite where they need to be at for me to rely too much on, especially when you have the eye test.
Using the Fan Graphs rating for WAR and price per WAR, Arenado was a $13 million dollar player as a rookie (thanks to D) and a $17 million dollar player in 2014, thanks to the increase in offense and the still strong defense. Instead the team only had to pay him a nice sum of $500,000, so arguably one of the best bargains in baseball in 2014, even with the lack of power, the injuries, and the slight regression on defense.
Update – Even as I was writing up Nolan’s 2014 tonight I finally saw the story on Gold Glove winners. Nolan deserved and rightly won the award again and it is time for him to put a death grip on the award for as long as he wears Rockies purple. Way to go Nolan…UZR might have said you were a lot worse, but no one here thinks so!
Update 2 – I forgot a 2014 Grade!
2014 Grade: Either a Sold B or an Incomplete. The player who was playing in the 2nd inning of that game in Atlanta was heading for an A- season. The hitting streak and the day-after-day highlight film defense was all the team could hope for from a 23 year old. Yes, there were no homers on the road at that point but he was hitting doubles on the road and carrying his weight offensively. After his double in the 2nd he was hitting .320 with an OPS of .814. Then there is the long (seemingly unending) stretch on the DL. Then the return and finding his groove. On August 1 he was hitting .287 with an OPS of .791 (thanks to 9 homers and 25 doubles at that point, including one that day vs Verlander and the Tigers). By September 1 he was at .304 with 14 homes. He finished well until he got ill at the end of the season which helped drag down the batting average and cap the power. He gets the B rating because the power was not there on the road, the defense, while occasionally great, also had lapses and didn’t account for as many runs saved. So he deserves a solid B bordering on a B+ (especially when we saw what happened when he went down to the finger injury). But after playing in 133 games in 2013 he only managed 111 games in 2014 and it seemed to stop him each time he was finally getting into a solid place. So it might be fairer to say, “Incomplete” because of what could have been.
2015 Projection – We have been waiting for Nolan’s bat to finally step forward, and there is no other spot in the existing lineup where a big change can happen without a huge change in the position. What is the upside on his batting average? I don’t think .315 is out of the question, again, especially with playing 81 at Coors (assuming healthy of course) and I doubt he will again his only .280 on BABIP at Coors (in 2013 it was .312). If he can avoid a huge split with regards to home/road, then his increase should also show up on the road. But what is the power expectation? He hit 34 2B and 18 HR and amazingly 2 3B in 2014, so clearly he has a line-drive swing. Can he push that to 40 2B, 5 3B, and 25 HR, including at least 10 on the road? I think certainly he has it in him, as he grows physically and in experience. They need to see him do that to have a chance to win 85 or so games (to say nothing of the pitching of course).
His defense has to remain at least at the mid-range of 2013-2014. As we saw when he went down, the defensive issues at the hot corner were horrendous and I think it did impact the performance of the pitching staff. He has to play Gold Glove defense for this team to have a chance to pitch well!
If he regresses? I can easily see him hit .265 with 15 homers and 25 2B and play less than stellar defense. If that happens this team might well have to move to Boise!