What Nolan Arenado did at third base from 2013 to 2022 was extraordinary. If it were easy to average 15 Defensive Runs a season at the hot corner, lots of players would do it. But Arenado stands alone with his skill and has the hardware in Gold Gloves (10) and Fielding Bible Awards (5) to back it up.
But this 2023 season has been befuddling in many ways for the Cardinals. One of those ways is that Arenado’s defense has not been close to its usual standards.
Arenado enters Thursday with -1 Runs Saved. That’s -1 as in negative-1.
He’s not anywhere close to his usual spot near the top of the MLB leaderboard. The top three are currently Arenado’s division rival, Ke’Bryan Hayes, who is tied at the top with Arenado’s replacement with the Rockies, Ryan McMahon, followed by Arenado’s former high school teammate, Matt Chapman.
Now, we’re only a little more than 40% of the way through the season and there are reasons that awards are given out for 162 games rather than 60 to 70. Arenado could easily rip off a great defensive stretch and make up a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
That would mean believing in his track record over the small sample.
The track record is fantastic. The small sample is … not.
What’s Going On?
What’s missing from Arenado’s play this year is that he’s not making the great play AND he’s on pace to do worse on the easier ones as well.
We could cherrypick this any number of ways, but for the purposes of simplicity, let’s look at plays Arenado made that were worth at least a half-run in Defensive Runs Saved—these are generally the toughest balls on which to get outs.
And then we’ll look at plays that cost him at least a half-run. These are generally easy plays on Arenado’s ledger.
Nolan Arenado Plays Made – By Value of Play
|Season||>=0.5 Runs||<=-0.5 Runs|
This is a good mix of seasons. In the shortened 2020 season, Arenado was otherworldly. He led all third basemen in Runs Saved. In 2021, he dipped a bit and had his worst season to date, finishing it with 6 Runs Saved. In 2022, a few more really nice plays and fewer mistakes led to a much better season.
Even Arenado’s previous “bad” year is pretty far from what he’s been in 2023. What stands out is that Arenado is lacking the jaw-dropping play.
Here are some of the plays that made Arenado so valuable in 2022.
The charge and throw has always been a big part of his repertoire. Here are two of them.
Arenado has also mastered going to his left, cutting off balls that would be tough plays for his shortstops and taking care of them himself.
These occasionally require dives
Quick moves and spins
And sometimes they’re just “ho-hum”
What’s most noticeable about Arenado when watching these is that he can make a throw from any angle and adjust his velo as needed to get the batter at first base.
That’s why Cardinals broadcaster Chip Caray would have such confidence that Arenado was going to make a play like this one against Mookie Betts and the Dodgers on May 19.
Entering that day, Arenado seemed reasonably on track from a statistical perspective. He had 4 Defensive Runs Saved. But since May 19, Arenado has -5 Runs Saved, the worst total for anyone playing the position in that time.
Since then, Arenado has had a collection of botches uncharacteristic of his defensive nature, not just on the balls he typically vacuums up, but on other kinds of plays too. Nine of the 15 plays that cost him at least a half-run have come in this time. Here are 3 of them.
I want to point out two other things that I noticed in my video and data study. First, from 2018 to 2022, Arenado has ~400 more touches on his forehand than on his backhand. His ratio of forehand touches to backhand touches is about 1.6-to-1.
This season, that ratio of opportunities is almost exactly 1-to-1 (72 backhand touches, 71 forehand touches). As an infielder you’d ideally want as many forehand chances as possible. Arenado has consistently converted them at about a 94% rate. Backhands, as you can see here, are harder.
Nolan Arenado – Backhand Play Success Rate
|Plays Made/Touches||Backhand Out Rate|
The other thing I wanted to note is that in looking at Arenado’s season, it seems lacking in the kinds of chances that Arenado typically makes the most of: barehand plays.
The last four full seasons, Arenado has attempted a barehand 37, 36, 28, and 21 times, converting 56 of 122 into outs. This season, he’s had only 5 opportunities, converting 2. We’re not attempting to create an excuse for Arenado but I think a lack of opportunities is coming into play here, thus giving Arenado fewer chances to raise his Runs Saved total.
In sum, you might say that we should cut Arenado some slack, given that this is primarily a one-month funk. That’s fair.
But if you want to post 15 Runs Saved in a season at third base and win Fielding Bible Awards, chances are your season’s going to need some of the kinds of plays that Arenado has yet to make. And if the Cardinals want to make up the ground necessary to be in the playoff race, they’re going to need their third baseman to defend like his old self.