Last season, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado was one of the team’s early surprises, making his debut at 22 years old. Arenado had whizzed through Colorado’s farm system, jumping up a level each year after being drafted in the second round in 2009. By April of last season, Arenado was playing with the Rockies after posting a 1.059 OPS in just 75 plate appearances at AAA Colorado Springs. He was the Rockies everyday third baseman following his promotion on April 28 and ended up with 486 at bats, just three shy of Michael Cuddyer for highest on the Rockies. That’s a testament to the injuries to Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, but it’s also a testament to Arenado’s extraordinary consistency for a 22-year old player. Arenado ended up posting a 3.9 Baseball Reference WAR and a 2.7 Fangraphs WAR and won a gold glove (an amazing rookie year achievement because gold glove awards are often handed out as lifetime achievement awards, hence Derek Jeter‘s long run of them). He finished third among rookies in WAR, but just seventh in the Rookie of the Year voting. The reason? His league average bat.
Arenado was good last year, but his bat didn’t live up to expectations in his rookie year. Nolan Arenado has a good bat, with gap power similar to what Todd Helton had when he debuted for the Rockies. He even showed it a bit last season, with 43 extra base hits and a decent .405 slugging percentage last season. What really was not there for Arenado last season were the walks, and that’s a concern. Now, we have to cut Arenado some slack. Again, he was just 22 years old and looked to be a little over his head at the plate on a few occasions. His strikeout percentage was encouragingly low (he struck out in 14% of his plate appearances) and he started to show some improvement as the season went on. But fair or not fair, Arenado is going to have to get on base more. The Rockies may ask him to hit in the top third of the lineup, where it is necessary to get on base. Arenado will likely have Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez behind him in the lineup, and for the lineup to be successful he will have to get on. Arenado walked just 4.5% of the time last season, and Steamer predicts a slight uptick to 5.4%. That’s encouraging, but it won’t be enough. He’s going to have to get it higher than that if he wants to be a productive two-hole hitter.
Nolan Arenado has a bright future, and he doesn’t turn 23 until April. His doubles power may turn into homer power, and the 10 home runs we saw last season could realistically double as soon as this season. His defense is terrific, and he has seemingly transformed himself from an average third baseman (in the scouting reports) to an elite one. Arenado’s defense should be enough for 3 WAR on its own. But the Rockies, in a tough division with few weaknesses, need more. They need Arenado to transform into a top of the order hitter who can get on base while still providing his power. And there is reason to believe that the young third baseman can deliver. His work ethic is impeccable, and he already made strides when he had to. Before the 2013 season, Arenado worked with Tulowitzki to improve his glove as part of his effort to make the Rockies. It didn’t pay off immediately, but a month later he was the everyday third baseman and his work with Tulowitzki eventually led to a gold glove. The Rockies are hoping that this offseason is dedicated to getting on base. They need it.