Nolan Arenado has become a breakout star for the Rockies in part thanks to his dazzling, and sometimes puzzling, defense.
DENVER—It's been exactly two minutes since first pitch on June 3, and the curtain’s already up on the Nolan Arenado Show. Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner has smashed a line drive to short, and it has the crack of a hit. But don’t blink. Don’t you dare. Arenado hasn’t, at least, because there he is, diving to his left from third base. His body’s stretched taut, and if his arm were an inch shorter, if his motion had come a millisecond later, he wouldn’t have enough. But Arenado’s arm is long and his twitch is quick. Ball meets glove, and body hits dirt. Thud.
These are the only plays the hotshot third baseman doesn’t practice, mostly because of the aforementioned thud. They are pure instinct, devoid of fear, the essence of what Arenado has become as a pro. He’s the Rockies’ defensive leader, perhaps baseball’s best infielder, and he's just 24 years old. To watch him make one of his gasp-inducing plays is to think Arenado was born for this.
At El Toro High School in Lake Forest, Calif., however, Arenado was a shortstop who still hadn’t shaken his childhood preference for home runs over defensive heroics. He was slow, he says, and disinterested in fielding, but his sluggishness caused him only a move from short to third base once he entered the Rockies organization as the 59th pick of the 2009 MLB draft.
Arenado can’t pinpoint exactly why he changed his approach to defense, but he knows the transition began early in his days in Colorado’s farm system. “It took me a while,” he concedes. “I wasn’t really into (defense) in high school. I was like, whatever; I could field the ball and throw it, so I was okay, but when you get to pro ball, there’s more to it than that, and I really took it to heart.”
Arenado has never played an inning of professional baseball somewhere other than third base, and by 2012, Baseball Prospectus had ranked him as MLB’s No. 20 prospect. After just 18 games with the Triple A Sky Sox in 2013, Arenado debuted in the big leagues. As a rookie, he had only 11 errors, tied for fourth-fewest among third basemen who appeared in 120 or more games. It’s a stat that’s even more noteworthy after watching his style on the field.
“At times, I am in awe of his fearlessness,” Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki says. “He just goes for it. He’s not afraid to try any play or any throw.”
Rockies manager Walt Weiss can recall the moment when he knew that the hyped minor leaguer he'd heard about while coaching at Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colo., in 2012 had been touting a major league arm (and eyes, and brain). It was on May 28, 2013, the one-month anniversary of Arenado’s big-league debut. The Rockies were playing in Houston, and in the bottom of the fourth inning, the Astros had men on second and third with one out. Carlos Pena, Houston’s designated hitter, came to bat and chopped a ball to Arenado’s left. It would have been a close out at first, even, but Arenado’s focus was three bases ahead. Spinning 360 degrees, he threw home.
“There really was very little chance of him making the play,” Weiss recalls. “And he didn’t make the play. For me, even though … there was no out on the play, that spoke volumes, because he was a rookie, and (had) the courage to try to pull that play off as opposed to just throwing to first. That was the most impressive play I saw him make that year, and it wasn’t even an out.”
Now in his third season in the big leagues, Arenado has already earned two Gold Gloves, making him just the fifth player in MLB history to earn the honor in each of his first two seasons. The others? Red Sox third baseman Frank Malzone (1957–58), Reds catcher Johnny Bench ('68–69), Marlins catcher Charles Johnson ('95–96) and Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki (2001–02). Over his two seasons and change, Arenado ranks second among all third baseman in zone rating and has a .966 fielding percentage that is tied for eighth among that same group.
But those stats can’t quite capture what it is to watch Arenado at the hot corner. In a game that’s been criticized for being too slow, Arenado is a sinewy blur. He plays the game with a speed and an enthusiasm baseball sometimes lacks, a “youthful exuberance,” Weiss calls it. “In a lot of ways,” the manager says, “it looks like a 12-year-old kid playing out on the Little League field.”
But the difference between being a preteen whiz and the player logging 2.4 assists per nine innings this season (best among all third basemen) is simple: practice. So much of what Arenado does is God-given—no coach has yet mastered the art of teaching razor-sharp instincts—but that doesn’t preclude him from being the Rockies’ most dogged worker during warmups. Daniel Descalso, a utility infielder who came to the Colorado from St. Louis before this season, says he was all too familiar with Arenado’s defensive highlight reel before he joined his new team, but once he arrived, he was astonished at the younger player’s work ethic. “The reason he makes it look easy is he’s practiced for thousands of hours,” Descalso says, “so those plays are like second nature to him.”
Arenado prefers his baseball simple in every way. Good fielding, he says, is about little more than staying low and keeping one’s glove down. He’s still adjusting to the shifts the Rockies have implemented this season—they’ve thrown him off a bit, he admits—and instead of turning to the scale to select a bat of the correct, precise weight, he simply whacks the head of his bats against the bottom of his palm. A loud ping is good, a dull voooom is bad, because in Arenado’s world, instincts trump numbers.
The Rockies know what they have in Arenado, who also boasts 16 home runs and 49 RBIs, the latter tops among NL third baseman. Those numbers should earn him his first All-Star Game berth this July, and there’s not a player in Colorado’s clubhouse who isn’t singing his praises. But among the many voices, Tulowitzki’s praise rings loudest.
“Superstar players, they’re not afraid to fail,” the four-time All-Star says. “A lot of people are going to play things safe and not want to be on the record after the game saying, ‘I made a mistake.’ But he doesn’t think about that. He’s in the moment. He’s a good one.”
Arenado himself has a list of recent great third basemen he’s always admired: Adrian Beltre, Alex Rodriguez, Evan Longoria. Still, on the field, he cares as little for his predecessors as he does for the fear of errors or for doing anything other that what his gut might dictate.
“My style’s different,” he says. “If I tried to be (anyone else), I probably wouldn’t be that good.”
Nolan Arenado tries to be nothing. He simply is. And that’s so much better.