Last week, MLB Network continued their annual “Top 10 Right Now” look at the best players at each position heading into 2017 with a look at the top third basemen in baseball. Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado placed fourth—really, to hear Mike Petriello tell it, tied for third—on the list. Those of us with purple-hued glassed might be tempted to cry foul. Have you seen Nolan play defense? What about his power? Did you notice he’s taking more walks?
Much as I want to stump for Nolan, fourth is not only accurate but is also an incredible accomplishment. As was the case last year, the list of third basemen is stacked with MVP winners, a sure-fire future Hall of Famer, as well as some of the biggest stars in baseball today. To be placed in this group is to be in rare company and the way he has climbed up the list tells us a lot about Nolan’s standing among the best players in baseball.
At the start of his career Nolan was known mostly for his superlative glove and adequate bat. As he’s grown as a hitter he has risen up MLB Networks’ list. Over the course of the previous two years, he climbed from tenth to sixth. Last year, after producing a .287/.323/.575 line with 42 home runs, he was somehow placed below Justin Turner, who was playing third base full time for the first time in his career. At this point, Arenado was considered “merely” a very good player, though some were ready to argue him higher.
Nolan’s response in 2016 was to leave little doubt about the stratosphere to which he belonged. He was able to nearly double his walk rate while cutting his strikeout rate to put up .294/.362/.570 with another 41 home runs, good for a 129 OPS+. His 20 Defensive Runs Saved were the best in the National League and the best in baseball among infielders. He also won his fourth consecutive Gold Glove at third base as well as his second Fielding Bible Award in a row. That brought him up to fourth, behind Kris Bryant, Josh Donaldson, and Manny Machado.
Lest we forget, these are absolutely some of the best players in the game today. Despite just two years in the bigs, Kris Bryant already has a Rookie of the Year award and an NL MVP award, thanks in part to his 149 OPS+ in 2016 and positional versatility. Josh Donaldson (152 OPS+ in 2016) has established himself as one of the best players in the American League on the back of consecutive top five finishes in the MVP race, including a win in 2015. And Manny Machado, who came up as a shortstop, not only can hit like Nolan (128 OPS+), but he is also the only third baseman who is Nolan’s peer defensively. To be ranked
fourth tied for third in this group still leaves Nolan in the conversation of the best players not named Mike Trout in baseball.
While Nolan’s defense is pretty unquestionably the class of the group (with apologies to the always excellent Adrián Beltré), it’s not enough to make up the gap in overall production. A large part of this gap comes down to how we account for context. Because Coors Field remains the most extreme offensive park in baseball, Nolan’s raw numbers (.294/.362/.570 in 2016) lose a bit of their sheen. His below average base running numbers (-1.1 Baserunning Runs on Fangraphs in 2016) also widen the gap between him and, say, Kris Bryant (7.8, among the top overall in baseball). On their own they are small, and that’s just the point: these small differences are all you will find to separate Nolan from the rest of these elite players.
We’re so used to supporting a team that plays in The Time Zone Baseball Forgot that we tend to reflexively think that Rockies players are being perpetually overlooked or underrated. Those of us who watch Nolan Arenado man the hot corner on a regular basis know just how good he is and we want him to get the recognition he deserves. However, Nolan’s ranking fourth in MLB Network’s list doesn’t mean he’s been resigned to the shadows once again, but that he has taken his rightful place among the best of the best not just at third base, but in all of baseball.