At just 25 years old, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado is already racking up the accolades. After leading all major league third basemen in home runs, RBI, extra base hits, and defensive runs saved in 2015, Arenado took home his third straight Gold Glove, first Silver Slugger, and made his first All-Star appearance.
His 7.4 Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) last year put him in the top 10 of all National League position players. He was clearly already one of the best players in baseball—and he could still be improving. Let's take a look at his early results from 2016 to find out how.
On the surface, his .267/.323/.617 slash line represents a moderate improvement from his .287/.323/.575 slash line from a year ago. However, it pales in comparison to the .345/.397/.638 triple slash line he put up over just the first 15 games of 2015. If we're just looking at that, it might seem like he isn't getting any better after all. This early in the season though, just looking at surface numbers doesn't tell the whole story. We'll have to dig a bit deeper to find out what's really going on.
Let's check out the underlying factors that can lead to a hitter being good. Putting the ball in play, particularly with some authority, and not swinging at bad pitches are two of the cornerstones of a good hitter, so it stands to reason that improvements in these areas would lead to improvements to a hitter's overall numbers.
To examine this, I took a look at Arenado's walk, strikeout, chase, contact, and hard hit rates as well as his average exit velocities from 2015, 2016, and his career as a whole to see if there have been any improvements. You can see those numbers below:
What we have here is across the board improvement. All of the things you want to see go up—walk rate, contact rate, hard hit rate, and average exit velocity—have gone up, while all of the things you want to see go down, such as strikeout rate and chase rate, have gone down. This certainly bodes well for him going forward. Other factors might be at play though.
It's possible that the Coors Field hangover hasn't fully taken effect yet, so his numbers haven't been hurt by it. What happens if we look at the same numbers again, but this time we only use April 2015 to weed out any negative effects from last season he might not be feeling yet. Here are those numbers:
The only significant changes here are the strikeout and contact rates, which suggest those numbers are probably at least partly getting a benefit from the lack of a Coors Field hangover this early in the season. However, everything else here still looks great, with the most encouraging thing of the bunch being the improved chase rate. This is significant for a few reasons.
First off, Arenado's biggest offensive weakness entering the 2016 season was his overly aggressive approach at the plate. It limited his number of walks and, in turn, hurt his on-base percentage. Not swinging at so many bad pitches should help him to improve on that and is also likely playing a part in his increased hart hit rate. Intuitively, swinging at strikes more often should help a hitter to make more solid contact and in this case, the numbers back that up.
Another encouraging sign about that chase rate is that we've reached the point in the season in which swing rates start to become reliable. It's only April, so we could still see significant changes in any of these numbers between now and the end of the season, but the chase rate is the most likely of the bunch to be a legitimate improvement. That's great, because it's the thing he most needed to improve.
Players as talented as Nolan Arenado don't come around very often (this view doesn't even account for his superlative defense). The early returns in 2016 suggest he's gotten even better than he was before.