Last night, in the first inning of a ballgame that was not yet a blowout, Nolan Arenado stood in the box with two men on and two outs. The count was 2-1.
Rangers pitcher Colby Lewis threw a hard-breaking slider that began just off the center of the strike zone and ended up in the dirt in the left-handed batter's box. Arenado took his stride but as his body lunged for the ball his hands remained firm and he tracked the pitch into the dirt without swinging, earning ball three.
This, is where great hitters are made.
Last season, Nolan Arenado swings at that pitch. In fact, sometimes this season Nolan Arenado swings at that pitch. But the difference - however subtle it may seem - is understanding how and when to be aggressive and when to wait for the pitcher to give in to you. On a 2-1 pitch as a hitter you have options.
It looked to me that Nolan was guessing fastball, hence the stride, but recognized the slider coming in. Rather than still try to do something with it (and likely grounding out or working himself into a worse count) Nolan wisely let it go.
He did not draw a walk in this at-bat, which is a perfect example of how having a keen eye and patience at the plate does not necessarily equate to an increased walk rate. He drove the 3-1 fastball he had earned with his patience down the left-field line for a go-ahead two-run double that extended his hit streak to 27 games, tying Michael Cuddyer's Rockies record.
For all the breaking down of OBP and BABIP and contact rates, a hitter can only hit the pitches thrown to him. This is a fact. The hitter is not in charge of what he sees. Hitting is, by nature, a reactive task. Choosing to swing or not to swing can be nearly impossible to do in the split second it takes for the ball to go from pitcher's hand to catcher's mitt unless you have some idea of what is going to happen before it happens.
If Arenado swings at that 2-1 pitch, he is likely either out or now in a 2-2 count where he needs to be more defensive, making it less likely he can catch up to the high or inside hard stuff while also covering soft away. On a 3-1 count, Nolan doesn't have to care at all about soft away; he can assume that the pitcher doesn't want to walk him and will throw a pitch in the zone. If he doesn't, oh well; Arenado still has another pitch to work with on a 3-2 count.
Nolan Arenado has always had the tools to be a great hitter (as was profiled during his days in the minors). Now, he possesses the mind for it.
His approach during this streak has been clear to me. He is sitting on the inside fastball -- which is how he was able to hit a home run on a pitch five inches inside and also how he got the final pitch in the AB we've been discussing this piece -- and trusting his eyes and his quick hands to react to anything else.
Nolan still has the ability to swing at and hit balls nowhere near the strike zone, which is great for covering tough two-strike pitches. But I've noticed lately that unless he gets the pitch he is looking for early, he is allowing himself to see more strikes knowing that the more pitches he sees, the more likely one will be right where he can do some damage.
With two strikes he abandons any sectioning off of the strike zone in his head (i.e. let anything away go cause it'll tail away from my power) and allows himself to become a purely reactive hitter. But until that point, he is working the count perfectly and only offering at pitches he can do something with.
It isn't just about seeing the ball in the moment but about understanding where pitchers want to work him, and learning the tricks to get them throw the pitches you want to hit.
The thing that is great about this is that Arenado's contact ability allows him to change his approach here and there if the opposing strategy gets too extreme. A pitcher can try just staying away, but Arenado can hit that pitch and will eventually begin sitting on it if the hurler continues to pitch outside. These tiny adjustments have fueled some of the best pure hitting the Rockies have seen in a long time (not counting Troy Tulowitzki, who is a robot).
A lot of this may sound like baseball 101, but it gets discussed less and less in the age of sabermetrics. Brandon Barnes told our new best friends Anthony Masterson and Tyler Maun of the Purple Dinocast that one of the big differences between his time in Houston and now with the Rockies comes in terms of guessing pitches.
When I was positing scenarios under which Barnes could succeed in Coors Field, I thought of bigger outfields, platooning, and even lineup protection, but it never occurred to me (or anyone else I saw debating the topic) to suggest that Brandon Barnes could make himself a better player in the film room.
A baseball player's greatest attribute is often found on one square foot of real estate: the mind.
Tulowitzki is constantly harping on doing your homework, putting in the preparation, and thinking through the game as much as playing through it.
One of the reasons why other, perhaps slightly more nimble or marginally faster (in terms of raw speed), shortstops still don't get to as many balls as Tulo is that he is always re-positioning himself and the rest of his infield based on the pitcher on a number of factors (pitcher and hitter tendencies, current pitching approach, count, etc.) that he studied long before first pitch.
When asked about DJ LeMahieu's excellent defense, Troy discussed the work he puts in to understand pre-play positioning and knowing personnel as opposed to his UZR, range factor, or even something as simple as fielding percentage.
Ever see Tulo take a 91 MPH fastball right down the middle and think, "you didn't want to swing at that?" I have. And in the moment that can be infuriating, but what we sometimes fail to remember is that if Tulo was looking for an offspeed pitch there and fired anyway, he is just going to pop out because he'll be late.
We can prognosticate and argue all day (and we will dammit!) about players numbers and on-field accomplishments. But Nolan Arenado's 27-game hit streak is another piece of evidence that this team is succeeding as much for what they can do on the field as for how they prepare away from it.
For all the eye-rolling that goes on when Rockies brass talks about maturity and character, this team has adopted an attitude that Jenny Cavnar discussed brilliantly on Purple Dinocast. Maybe looking at spreadsheets before the season was the wrong way to judge this team.
The Rockies are a team of cerebral assassins and right now, other than Robot Tulo, Nolan Arenado is thinking one step ahead of just about everybody. And that has made all the difference.