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Wednesday Rockpile: Nolan Arenado doing it with defense

Nolan Arenado speaks to me about his defense, BABIP luck, the minors, and Sharknado

Justin Edmonds

As some of you may know, I had the opportunity to cover this past weekend's series against the Cubs, during which I was able to speak to Arenado and a number of other Rockies players. I'll be writing more about that experience very soon, but here's what Nolan had to say when I spoke to him before Sunday's game

DENVER -- Coming through the minor leagues, the positive portions of scouting reports on Nolan Arenado usually focused on his line drive swing and great contact ability. If scouting reports ever focused on his defense, they often concentrated on his slow foot speed despite him winning the defensive player of the year award in the California League in 2011.

It's interesting then that the 22 year-old Arenado has provided the major portion of his value to the Rockies during his rookie season on the defensive portion of the game. In Fangraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), a metric that measures the amount of runs saved on defense compared to an average defender at the same position, Arenado's 12.0 mark ranks 9th in MLB despite him having played only 77 games this year.

If you believe Baseball-Reference's defensive WAR metric (dWAR), Arenado has saved 20 runs this year above a normal 3rd baseman with his glove, making him a league average player simply by virtue of flashing the leather. That ranking places him 6th in MLB in defensive value.

"I always believed I was a good third baseman, I just never got the cred for it (from scouts)", Arenado told me. "I can see why, in the first couple of years in the minor leagues they could have said that...but I knew that I could play third base and once I got up here I'm happy that I showed it".

So far in the big leagues, Arenado has shown elite range as a 3rd baseman and a great arm to go along with it. My favorite play of his has to be this diving stop against the Phillies. In any case, I asked Arenado what Troy Tulowitzki thought of a 3rd baseman with elite range getting some balls that used to go to him.

"It's all about communication", Nolan replied. "We always communicate about where we want to go - if I see him move to the left, I'll shift over a little bit, we move together. There's certain balls where I got in trouble, when I took his balls when I should have let him get it. But it's good that we can cover some ground".

Indeed, the combination of Arenado and Tulowitzki make the left side of the Rockies' infield a tough place to find hits for opposing hitters. If you add in DJ LeMahieu's plus defense at second, the Rockies have an infield that is well prepared to convert the numerous groundballs that Colorado's rotation generates into outs.

Still, the Rockies would be a more competitive squad if Arenado could translate his offensive prowess from the minor leagues into major league results. Arenado led the minor leagues in RBI in 2011 and was named the Arizona Fall League (a league with a collection of the game's best prospects) MVP that year.

When asked about the AFL, Arenado responded that "It was was up there with big league competition in terms the players that were there". He also enjoyed when he played in Springfield, against the Cardinals AA squad, and Greenville, against the Red Sox Low A affiliate.

In terms of a home park, he really enjoyed playing in Asheville, but he had his best offensive year in High A Modesto - a park notorious for being difficult to hit a HR in for right-handed hitters. "It's funny, everyone says 'Oh it's the CAL League a lot of that (offensive numbers) didn't count', but we didn't have the best field (offensively) to play at". Arenado added that the Modesto team was the best group of guys he'd played with outside the big league level.

Arenado has been frustrated at times by the fact that his line drives at the big league level aren't finding the same holes they were in the minors.

Despite posting a line drive % of 23.5, indicating that he's hitting the ball hard with consistency, Arenado's batting line sits currently at only .241/.284/.385, good for a 71 OPS+ (meaning that he's batting 29% worse than league average). His .258 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a measure where league average results are closer to .300 (and line drive hitters skew even higher), indicates that Arenado's results should improve going forward, but for now it's been a tough stretch for Nolan.

"It sucks, because you want to hit, you want to produce for your team", said Arenado, "But I think it's just a matter of time...I've just got to keep trying to hit the ball hard".

When I asked the rookie how the atmosphere of the big leagues compared to that of the minor leagues, Arenado emphasized the importance of winning.

"It's a fun clubhouse because of the type of people we have here, but it's about winning (more than in the minors)", Arenado said. "In the minors it's more individual, because if you play well, you have a chance to move up - if your team does well, you don't know if you'll get called up. Up here - you're already up, it's all about the success of the team".

I asked Nolan about the best advice he'd received from a Rockies player and he mentioned that Todd Helton had told him that "It wasn't about the results, it was about the process - if you do it right, everything will start to fall into place".

I also had the time to bring up Sharknado with the man who is destined to be linked to that glorious cinematic achievement - he hadn't seen it yet, but he was really hoping to check it out soon because he heard it was so bad it was good.

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