Arenado's Learning Goes Beyond Numbers
Until a recent mini-slump, Nolan Arenado was maintaining an average above .300 with the Rockies' low class A affiliate, the Asheville Tourists. Considering that he's in his first full professional season, and that at age 19, Arenado is the 10th-youngest player in the circuit, that feat seems somewhat impressive.
But don't tell that to Arenado's manager with Asheville, Joe Mikulik. His definition of success is a little different.
"He's learning how to play professional baseball," Mikulik said. "These guys come out of high school and even out of college and I consider the first full year a year when you learn how to put your uniform on, a year when you learn how to deal with the in-and-out daily grind of the schedule, a year when you're just trying to feel yourself around.
"For Nolan, that's what he's trying to do right now. I don't even look at the numbers."
Arenado remains a work in progress in those areas, as with most players his age. Helping young players make the adjustment from high school or college to professional baseball is, after all, one of the main functions of the low minors.
"I look at the way he approaches the game," Mikulik said. "His pre-game preparation, his awareness of where he's at during the game. Those are big things that he's learning and that he needs to improve on."
Arenado was showing progress through his first two months with the Tourists, specifically with his plate approach. He's impressed with his gap-to-gap mentality and his ability to drive the ball into the gaps.
"His approach at the plate has been good," Mikulik said. "He understands that he's got to make adjustments. He doesn't understand how to do that yet, but he understands that he has to do it."
Arenado's season was delayed this spring when he suffered a groin injury that forced him to start the year in the Rockies' extended spring training. While he was not able to face live competition there, he was able to focus on getting ready for the season.
"It was frustrating, not breaking out (of spring training) when everyone broke out," Arenado said. "But it was a good thing. I was getting my BP, I was getting ready. It went by real quick. I was real happy to get that call (to Asheville)."
Now that he's in Asheville, Arenado is doing his best to soak up everything that his coaches try to teach him. He says one of the things that has helped him the most is learning how to alter his two-strike approach.
"I've learned that your two-strike approach should not be a defensive approach," Arenado said. "You're still aggressive, widen the strike zone a little bit and be ready to hit."
With good hand-eye coordination and above-average plate discipline, Arenado has the tools to hit for average. He also projects to have at least average power, although it hasn't shown up yet in the form of gaudy home run totals. He had just three homers through 186 at-bats after hitting two in 203 at-bats last season. He does, however, have 19 doubles, which Arenado expects to turn into long balls over time.
"Right now I'm still trying to make sure to get my hands extended," Arenado said. "I think the power will come. I've hit a lot of balls off the wall and getting my doubles. I think my power numbers are going to shoot up. It's just a matter of time."
Rockies director of player development Marc Gustafson agreed, and reiterated that the process of sharpening every facet of Arenado's game is more important than the numbers.
"His power is going to come," Gustafson said. "The key thing is middle to away opposite-field approach, learning to cover the plate away. He will hit a mistake in and hit it for power. . . At-bats are going to be the process we're focused on. We're not gonna get him polished in first full season of pro ball."
A shortstop in high school, Arenado was immediately moved to third base, a change that he embraced.
"I'm very comfortable at third base," Arenado said. "That's the position I've always wanted to play. I always played shortstop because my high school team didn't have a shortstop. That's the position I think I have a chance to make it (to the majors) in."
In his inaugural stint at the hot corner last year at Rookie-level Casper, Arenado made 14 errors in 139 chances. He has been better this season, making just three errors in 96 chances.
"It was a pretty smooth transition," Arenado said. "The only thing that was hard was the ball gets there a lot quicker. There's not a lot of time to set your feet. When that ball comes at you, it's all reaction."
Arenado has already shown he can make highlight-reel plays at the hot corner and will cleanly field anything he gets to. His arm strength and accuracy have also impressed, which comes as no surprise because before he was drafted in the second round in 2009, some scouts wondered if he could be an impact catcher.
"He's got a knack for making plays," Gustafson said. "He has very excellent intensity and focus defensively."
The next step for Arenado is working on his agility and lateral movement, both of which stand out as the weak parts of his defensive game.
"That's something that he's going to have to work hard on this offseason," Mikulik said.
As far as career development goes, the Rockies plan to put Arenado on a similar path as Ian Stewart, was also a prized prospect as he came through the minors and now serves as Colorado's starting third baseman. Stewart played with Asheville in 2004 and spent a full year at each level of the minors before earning a major league promotion in August of 2007 when he was 22.
If Arenado ends up following Stewart's footsteps and plays in the majors at 22, it will be a clear indication of his strong work ethic, a trait Gustafson says the two third basemen share.
"I think Nolan has that same makeup, if you will."