'A lot I still want to prove': Arenado reflects on 10 years

April 20th, 2023

Nolan Arenado has changed quite a bit since he made his Major League debut on April 28, 2013. Back then, he was more Troy Tulowitzki. Ten years on, he’s more Paul Goldschmidt.

“I watched Tulo work extremely hard,” said Arenado, for whom Tulowitzki was a mentor after Arenado was drafted by the Rockies in 2009. “And he got hurt. His work ethic made me the player I am today, but I also watch Goldy take days off and he still performs well. I feel like if I feel fresh, I’m gonna be able to do more.”

More? We’re talking about a third baseman who has won 10 Gold Glove Awards in 10 MLB seasons, six Platinum Glove Awards and five Silver Slugger Awards. He’s been selected as an All-Star seven times and he recently surpassed the 300 home run milestone. How could he possibly do more, both in terms of preparation and performance?

For Arenado, it’s always about doing more. It’s just that he’s come to realize that sometimes less is more, especially now that he’s 32 and intent on maintaining his status as one of the elite players in the game.

“I work hard at it,” Arenado said of his off-field work. “But to be quite honest with you, I’m doing less. Less work means less wear and tear. I feel like I overdid it when I was younger, for sure. I think I overdid it, but I was having success and winning Gold Gloves. So I was like, ‘I’m not gonna stop.’

“But now that I’m older, I’m doing less. I think I have this confidence about myself that I’ve taken so many ground balls -- like, I’m ready for this next game.”

He’s also ready to take care of some unfinished business as he looks ahead to the latter years of his career.

“There are a lot of things I still want to prove, that I want to prove to myself in this game,” Arenado said before citing an example of an unfair but persistent perception he has been able to combat over the past couple of seasons.

“Me proving I can hit outside of Coors,” Arenado said. “I think that really changed the landscape of how people look at me now.”

Arenado’s star rose in the altitude of Denver’s Coors Field, where his defensive wizardry at the hot corner was undeniably phenomenal, but his customary 35-to-40-homer, 100-plus-RBI seasons at the plate were dismissed in some corners as the result of the Mile-High air of his home ballpark.

Though his first season following a trade to the Cardinals left more to be desired, Arenado had a career year in 2022, finishing third in National League MVP Award voting after hitting .293/.358/.533 (154 OPS+) and winning his 10th straight Gold Glove Award. That performance went a long way toward dispelling any notion that he was merely a Coors creation.

Even so, Arenado still has his detractors. There is still some lingering doubt out there about his greatness, particularly when it comes to October. In eight career postseason games, he’s gone just 5-for-33 (.152) with one homer. The only playoff victory his teams have enjoyed came in the 2018 NL Wild Card Game, when his Rockies outlasted the Cubs in an extra-inning thriller at Wrigley Field.

“In 2017, in the Wild Card Game (against the D-backs at Chase Field), I hit a homer, but I didn’t play great that game,” Arenado said. “And then in ’18, in Chicago, I hit a sac fly. Then the Brewers beat the crap out of us (in the NL Division Series) -- I didn’t do anything. But I was younger and I was rattled by those times.

“Last year in the playoffs (for the Cardinals against the Phillies in the NL Wild Card Series), I felt mentally ready to go, and I just didn’t do it. So obviously that one hurt more.”

Arenado still has more on his to-do list before his days as a player are complete. But while the day-to-day grind of baseball, especially for a perfectionist like himself, occupies his thoughts, he isn’t blind to what he’s accomplished in these past 10 years.

After all, with 10 Gold Glove Awards in 10 seasons, Arenado is on track to be considered the best defensive third baseman in baseball history when it’s all said and done. Only one third baseman has won more Gold Glove honors than Arenado -- Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, who won 16. With his 10th Gold Glove Award last year, Arenado tied Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt for second all time at the position.

That number -- 10 -- is special to Arenado when it comes to his defensive career.

“When I won my 10th Gold Glove, that was the time I felt my legacy as a defender was set,” Arenado said. “I think maybe it’s because of Mike Schmidt. Once I tied him, I felt my legacy was set defensively.

“Am I the best to ever do it? I can’t say that. I don’t believe that yet. I mean, Adrián Beltré, Mike Schmidt, Brooks, Scott Rolen, those guys were really good, too. I know some people say they were better than me, and that doesn’t bother me. I don't want to sound arrogant, but defensively, I know I’m one of the greatest of all time.”

Arenado doesn’t feel the same way about his legacy offensively. He said his failures in October are the main reason why he doesn’t consider himself a Hall of Fame-caliber player yet.

There have been many great players, even Hall of Famers, who struggled in postseason play. It didn’t diminish what they did during the other six months on the baseball calendar. But despite the small sample size of his October travails, Arenado feels he needs to perform well under the brightest lights and on the biggest stages before he can even think about one day standing on a stage in Cooperstown.

Arenado may not think he’s necessarily bound for the Hall of Fame without doing more in the postseason, but what do the numbers suggest? After all, after reaching 10 years of Major League service time last week, he's now eligible to be inducted at Cooperstown five years after he retires.

At 32, Arenado has produced 52.6 wins above replacement (Baseball Reference). Generally speaking, once a player reaches the mid-60s in WAR, he’s closing in on Hall of Fame territory. The way Arenado has trended the past few years, he could breach that region within two to three seasons. He’s also already one of just eight players in MLB history to hit 300 or more home runs and win 10 or more Gold Glove Awards.

If you told a 22-year-old Arenado that there was even a remote possibility of him one day being enshrined in Cooperstown after having been in the Majors for a decade, he’d be ecstatic.

“When I first came into the league, I really just wanted to get 10 years,” he said. “When you’re a young player, you’re just thinking, ‘I wanna stay in the big leagues and get 10 years -- I’ll get my pension and all that, and I’ll be good.' That was always my goal. Now that I’m here, now it’s a matter of winning.”

And that’s the elephant in the room when discussing Arenado’s career: he has been one of the very best players across baseball over much of the past decade, but he has no World Series rings to show for his efforts to this point.

Will he prolong his playing career if he gets to the age he has said he wants to retire without having won it all? Well, there’s more to life than baseball, even for someone as hyper-focused and driven as Arenado.

“Hopefully we’ll win a World Series before I’m done playing,” he said. “If we haven’t, I would really have to decide. But I’ve got a baby now, and I want to be able to spend more time with my family. I don’t want to be limping in and be a hindrance to a team with my body hurting. I want to be able to do things like golf and surf and be with my family and do stuff that’s fun at a good age to where I still feel young and healthy.”

Arenado has come a long way from that June day in 2009 when he got a phone call from the Rockies. The scouting reports on him were less than flattering, referring to him as a “duck-footed” and slightly out-of-shape player with some potential at the plate, but perhaps best suited as a catcher defensively.

While he doesn’t remember many of the reports that were made about him as a prep star at El Toro High School in Lake Forest, Calif., he does remember the “duck-footed” bit. How could one forget?

The Rockies had Arenado train with Tulowitzki to get in shape and develop the type of work ethic it would take to become the player he’s become. Interestingly, Arenado has said that his ADHD, while making him restless during hitters’ meetings and such, has actually made him a better player because everything seems to slow down for him on the field.

He moved through Colorado’s farm system quickly, and on April 28, 2013, he took the field as a big leaguer for the first time against the D-backs in Arizona. The rest, as they say, is history.

If Arenado has his way, he’ll have made more history before calling it a career. While he doesn’t know about winning six more Gold Glove Awards, he does have a number in mind for home runs.

“I would like to get to 400 homers,” he said. “If I got there, I’d feel pretty happy about it. Four hundred would be pretty cool. Five hundred would be ridiculous.”

Perhaps. But the notion is certainly not as ridiculous as some of the defensive gems he’s treated us to over the past 10 years. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Arenado, it’s that we never know what jaw-dropping exploits he’ll wow us with next at third base. And there’s no reason to think we won’t see more of them in the years to come.

After all, more is better than less. More or less.