Full Account -- a new, podcast from MLB.com that will provide deep dives on baseball’s best stories -- is releasing a series of episodes this week about the vast impact of the 2009 MLB Draft. One of the episodes will delve into how Nolan Arenado, the Gold Glove third baseman for the Rockies, was almost a catcher. What follows is a small sampling of Arenado’s story. You can subscribe to Full Account here.
Nolan Arenado won the National League Gold Glove for his work at third base his rookie year with the Rockies in 2013, and he has won it every single year since, also capturing the Platinum Glove for best overall defensive player in the league in both 2017 and 2018. In his seven seasons in the big leagues, he has amassed an astonishing total of 109 defensive runs saved, which is second only to shortstop Andrelton Simmons in that span.
Because of his throws, his dives, his knack for following the path of the ball and his overall athleticism, Arenado is considered by some to be one of the best defensive third basemen the game has ever seen -- and that’s before you even consider his offensive impact, which includes three NL home run titles.
But a decade ago, when he was a Draft prospect at El Toro High School in Lake Forest, Calif., many evaluators felt that if Arenado was going to have any sort of future in professional baseball, it was going to be behind the plate.
You can find evidence right here at MLB.com, where our 2009 Draft report on Arenado glowed about his raw power, bat speed and plus arm in the field but said he was “duck-footed,” that he “lumbers” and compared his body to those of Yorvit Torrealba and the Molina brothers -- all catchers. Indeed, the report came to the conclusion that, “If a team is convinced he can catch, he could go off the board in the first couple of rounds.”
MLB Pipeline Draft and prospects expert Jonathan Mayo wrote that report. But don’t shoot the messenger. Mayo was merely relaying the consensus from area scouts and cross-checkers at that time.
“There were a lot of question marks about where [Arenado’s] defensive home would be,” Mayo says now. “But I think because of the below-average speed and the plus arm, people thought maybe that would work behind the plate. He had good hands and he had a good arm. Those things could work behind the plate. Maybe the reason it wouldn’t work at third was because of the lack of quickness.”
Though he played primarily at shortstop, Arenado did a little catching in high school. Scouts would visit El Toro and ask Arenado to suit up behind the plate and show them some throws.
Matt Chapman -- who, amazingly, would also become a Gold Glove and Platinum Glove-winning third baseman out of El Toro with the Oakland A’s -- was a sophomore during Arenado’s senior season and was the one receiving those throws at second base. But he says he knew then that the catching experiment would be short-lived.
“I didn’t think he was going to be a shortstop,” Chapman said, “but I thought he’d be a third baseman, because his hands are unbelievable.”
The Rockies would be lying if they told you they saw the Platinum Gloves coming for Arenado at third base. But their area scout Jon Lukens and their national cross-checker Ty Coslow had done enough homework on Arenado to understand his love, passion and feel for the game. And though Bill Schmidt, the club’s scouting director, knew Arenado would have his work cut out for him to cut it as a third baseman, he saw the seeds of a good defender at the position.
“He had very good hands and arm strength,” Schmidt said. “I always joke with him that he had cankles. So the first step wasn’t there. But he had the hands and the arm strength, which played into the thought process of potentially going behind the plate.”
Arenado understood why teams thought he had the potential to catch. But in his mind? It wasn’t happening.
“I think catching is awful, personally,” Arenado said. “Oh man, it was really hard. When I was doing it, I knew deep down that I didn’t want to do this, but, if it was going to get me drafted high, all right I’ll do it. Because I just wanted to go play. But I knew I could play third. I was slow, and I knew I could get quicker.”
Arenado made his feelings known to Lukens, and the Rockies were willing to give him a chance at third, at least initially. They actually selected three players ahead of Arenado -- Tyler Matzek, Tim Wheeler and Rex Brothers. But finally, with the 59th overall pick, they selected their future franchise face, the guy upon whom they would bestow a $260 million contract extension in 2019. Like other clubs, the Rockies weren’t sure where he’d eventually fill in positionally, and they weren’t convinced he’d be the power hitter he is today. But they liked his natural feel to hit.
“Looking back, 10 years later, a lot of people thought he was going to go behind the plate,” Schmidt said. “We were more focused on the bat. If it had to go behind the plate, we still thought the bat was going to be there.”
They were right about the bat. Arenado struck out in just 10.3% of his Minor League plate appearances. More meaningfully, though, his defense improved dramatically with the help of Minor League fielding coordinator Scott Fletcher and his Class A Modesto manager, Jerry Weinstein. Arenado adopted a drop step maneuver when preparing to throw, and he got the reps he needed to get better reads on balls off the bat.
Arenado has become the superstar those who knew him at El Toro always figured he’d be. And he didn’t have to move behind the plate to make it happen.
“People always try to label you, but, when you go out there and work hard and do what you do, you can change a lot of opinions,” Chapman said. “He’s done that and more -- six Gold Gloves and two Platinum Gloves later.”