This article is an abridged version of one on NL MVP candidates Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado that appears in The Bill James Handbook, available now from ACTA Sports.
If we’re going to talk about the best infield corner combos in major league history, we can begin by producing a list of instances in which a team’s usual first and third basemen each posted 5 WAR (per Baseball-Reference) in a season.
Doing so nets us 43 sets of combos in baseball’s modern era (since 1900). If we raise the bar to each recording a 6-WAR season, the list thins to only seven pairs, each of whom made it once. Bump it to 7 WAR and we’re in rare pair air.
There are only three such corner combos, and our Bill James Handbook cover subjects Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt make up one of them. The others are first baseman Frank Chance and third baseman Harry Steinfeldt of the 1906 Cubs and the standard-setter, Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen for the 2004 Cardinals.
The amazing thing about Goldschmidt and Arenado is how closely aligned in overall value they are.
What made them so special in 2022?
For both Goldschmidt and Arenado, 2022 was the greatest offensive season of their careers when considering how they did relative to the rest of MLB.
In 2022 MLB hitters had a .706 OPS, down 22 points from 2021 (despite the DH becoming permanent in the NL) and 52 points from 2019.
Goldschmidt’s OPS jumped by 102 points from 2021 to 2022. Heck, Goldschmidt’s OPS with two strikes was .785, 79 points better than the MLB overall OPS.
If you’ve ever regularly watched Goldschmidt during a full season (I did in 2018), you’d know that he goes through periods of time in which the baseball looks like a beach ball.
In 2022, that covered 51 games from May 7 to July 2, in which he hit .383 with a .455 on-base percentage and a .755 slugging percentage, with 17 home runs and 54 RBI.
Arenado’s OPS increased by 84 points from 2021 to 2022. He also cut his strikeout rate to 11.6%, the lowest for any full season in his 10-year career.
Arenado finished with 30 home runs and 72 strikeouts. There were 23 players with 30 home runs in 2022. The only other one with fewer than 100 strikeouts was Kyle Tucker with 95.
Peak Arenado showed up twice. In the first 20 games of the season, he hit .368 with a 1.133 OPS.
Then, over the nearly two-and-a-half months from June 17 to August 29, he hit .345 with a 1.065 OPS and 16 home runs in 58 games.
Left unsaid to this point are the aesthetics. Goldschmidt does everything well. He’s not just a hitter. Did you know he’s got a streak going of 23 consecutive successful stolen base attempts?
Goldschmidt may not have played Fielding Bible Award–worthy defense this season, but the Cardinals did lead MLB in how often they turned groundballs and bunts into outs, so he deserves some credit for that. He turned 35 in September but he doesn’t play like a 35-year-old. At least not yet.
Arenado similarly just plays the game well. He’ll turn 32 not long after Opening Day in 2023. But he still plays defense like he’s in his prime. He won his 5th Fielding Bible Award in 2022.
The joint value that the two of them provided this season was virtually unprecedented and is something that likely won’t be seen again for quite some time.
Unless they do it again next season, of course.