DENVER -- A six-year contract worth $260 million, a Rockies team that fell to fourth place in the National League West, two significant slumps and a month-plus full of pain didn’t crunch Nolan Arenado. Instead, he crushed in 2019.
Through the ups and downs, Arenado learned to focus on issues he can control with his bat and glove.
“I’ve been running my own race -- focusing on what I need to accomplish,” Arenado said. “I can't keep up with what everyone else is doing or people across the league, trying to see their numbers and see what they're doing, I think once I had, I said, 'I'm just gonna go focus on what I need to do to learn, and help his team learn.' I think that's when things started turning around a lot better for me.
“I’m talking offseason trainers, close friends, my brothers -- they were like, ‘Stop worrying about those things and the things you can't control. Control what you can. That's going about it every day the right way and working hard and this and that.’ Once I really committed to that plan, that's when I really started playing baseball that I know I'm capable.”
Arenado established career highs in batting average (.315), on-base percentage (.379) and OPS (.962). His 41 homers were one off his career high, his .583 slugging percentage three points off. And with no National League third baseman coming close in terms of range factor, he’s a favorite for his seventh straight Rawlings Gold Glove Award.
That doesn’t mean he’s going to suddenly become shy about calling on his team to improve. He’s concerned about the Rockies. Minus some significant parts in second baseman DJ LeMahieu and reliever Adam Ottavino, who signed with the Yankees, the Rockies that fell off this year are essentially the same team that went to the postseason in 2017 and '18.
But 2019 taught him to set aside external issues once play began. And the dude can really play.
What went right?
Arenado made himself a tougher out by slashing his strikeout rate from 18.1 to 14 percent. Of the 28 Major Leaguers with 35 or more homers, Arenado’s 93 strikeouts were second-fewest to the 83 by the Astros’ Alex Bregman (who also had 41 homers). Arenado’s 1.206 OPS in high-leverage at-bats was fourth in the Majors.
And one can’t ding him too much on the road, where park-adjusted stats only hint at the difference in atmosphere or the back-and-forth effect of having a home at altitude. He hit 20 homers on the road and had a respectable .886 OPS away from Coors Field.
What went wrong
Arenado was hit on the left forearm by the Cubs’ Cole Hamels on June 12. Days later, Arenado twice fouled balls off his left big toe, and within less than a month, he was hit on the left hand and fouled a pitch off his left shin. He came out of the All-Star break still feeling pain and fatigue, hitting .253 from June 13 to Aug. 2.
While the injury-aided collapse of starting pitching, turmoil in the bullpen and slumps throughout the lineup were as big or bigger problems, the Rockies went 15-27 during Arenado’s struggles. Then, for reasons he couldn’t fully explain, he started feeling better.
When asked, Arenado emphatically said his best moment lasted 30 days. In August, he batted .330, and his 12 homers tied Dante Bichette ('95) and Andres Galarraga ('96) for the most in August in club history.
“In July, I had two homers,” Arenado said. “I was able to come back and have just a way better month. I was really proud of that. I take a lot of pride.”
Arenado is a rare hitter who is successful outside the strike zone. According to Statcast, among Major League hitters who ended at least 100 at-bats chasing a pitch outside the strike zone, his .274 batting average ranked third, and his .447 slugging percentage and 54 hits each ranked second. Arenado also had 18 homers on out-of-zone pitches, third most.
But what happens if he takes a few more of those pitches, maybe accepts a walk that could lead to a big inning? He walked 9.4 percent of the time -- far less frequently than fellow NL MVP Award candidates Christian Yelich (44 homers, 13.8 percent walk rate) of the Brewers and the Cody Bellinger (47 and 14.4, respectively) of the Dodgers.
It’s a battle, since Areando's approach has been successful. But with his power, and with home games at Coors -- and a relentless spirit to be a better player -- Arenado could find an approach that leads to greater damage.