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Nolan Arenado keeps getting better

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The Rockies’ third baseman continues to get better with each passing season.

Colorado Rockies’ third baseman Nolan Arenado has already established himself as one of the game’s elite players. The 27-year-old righty has won a Gold Glove in each of his five Major League seasons and in the last three years, he’s gone to three All-Star games, won three Silver Slugger awards, and finished in the top 10 of MVP voting three times. Since the start of the 2015 season, Arenado’s 20.7 bWAR puts him in a tie for fifth among all big league position players, trailing only Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve, and Josh Donaldson.

Once a player reaches Arenado’s level of excellence, it would be understandable if his goals changed to simply maintaining his current level of play. For Arenado, that doesn’t appear to be the case. He continues to get better and better with each passing year, especially at the plate. Check out his yearly progression as a hitter since he came into the league:

Nolan Arenado Year-by-Year offense

Year wRC+ wOBA xwOBA
Year wRC+ wOBA xwOBA
2013 77 0.308 N/A
2014 113 0.359 N/A
2015 121 0.371 0.338
2016 126 0.386 0.348
2017 129 0.395 0.373
2018 160 0.429 0.412

A couple of things jump out at you there. We can see that he’s gotten progressively better in every season of his career, and we can also see that he’s gone from a few years of incremental jumps to a much larger jump so far in 2018. From 2014 to 2017, Arenado improved by a total of 16 points of wRC+ and 36 points of wOBA. From 2017 to 2018, Arenado has jumped 31 points of wRC+ and 34 points of wOBA. What has he done differently this season?

Following a continuing trend around the league, Arenado seems to have improved his numbers by focusing on getting on base and hitting the ball in the air. The change is clear when you look at Arenado’s walk rate, ground ball rate, and average launch angle compared to previous seasons:

Arenado walk rate, ground ball rate, and launch angle

Year BB% GB% Avg. Launch Angle
Year BB% GB% Avg. Launch Angle
2013 4.5 42.5 N/A
2014 5.4 37.6 N/A
2015 5.1 34.4 16.3
2016 9.8 35.2 18.7
2017 9.1 34 17.3
2018 14 23.7 21.3

As the league continues to learn the value of getting on base—the league walk rate has risen from 7.6% in 2014 up to 8.9% so far in 2018—and hitting the ball in the air—wOBA on fly balls since the beginning of the 2017 season is .449 compared to just .227 on ground balls—Arenado has gotten on board the train.

In addition to all this, it would also appear that Arenado isn’t as afraid to swing and miss if it means he’ll make better contact when he does connect. He currently sports a career-high strikeout rate (19.3%) and career-low contact rate (77.6%) in exchange for a 40.8% hard hit rate that’s the best of his career. In many cases, it’s better to swing and miss than make weak contact, and it’s another trend Arenado is seemingly keeping up with.

What we’re seeing from Arenado in 2018 is a microcosm of what we’re seeing throughout the league. He’s focusing on getting on base, hitting the ball in the air, and making hard contact, even if that means he’ll also have a few extra swings and misses. It isn’t an approach everybody loves, but so far it’s created the best version of Nolan Arenado yet.