Streaking or not, Arenado puts team first
With a lot of talent, a little faith, third baseman continues to impress in second year
CINCINNATI -- Big baseball fans Fernando and Millie Arenado were prophetic and faithful 23 years ago on April 16, when the second of their three sons was born. Nolan Arenado's prodigious play for the Rockies is a product of hard work and talent, but his success may also be an answer to a wish and a prayer.
"They named me Nolan, for Nolan Ryan," Arenado said, smiling. "My middle name is James, from the Bible."
Arenado's first steps toward his baseball destiny have been impressive.
Last year, after being called up on April 28, Arenado was so dazzling in 133 games that he became the first National League rookie third baseman and second overall to earn a Rawlings Gold Glove Award. This year, the offense has been just as sparkling.
A 28-game hit streak and a 30-game run of reaching base each ended during a three-game weekend set at Cincinnati, but Arenado is batting a strong .310 with a .335 on-base percentage, six home runs, 14 doubles and 26 RBIs. The breathtaking defensive plays -- the dives, the barehanded snags and snap throws -- have continued as well.
When Arenado -- wide-eyed and happy-go-lucky -- arrived last year, he found an odd-couple pairing with gruff and grizzled first baseman Todd Helton, whose career began when Arenado was 6. Helton, in his final season, was something between a big brother and a father figure, needling the rookie, while teaching him how to handle himself as a big leaguer. Arenado called their relationship "different, but awesome." This year, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has taken over as a demanding mentor.
But Arenado is less a little brother and more a player ready to do some heavy lifting, as Colorado (23-17) tries to shed two years of last-place finishes in the NL West.
"I don't feel like I'm the youngest guy on this team, although I am still the youngest guy on this team," Arenado said. "But I've showed that I want to be a big part of this team. I want to help this team win. It's nice that I was here last year. I've gotten used to being here, know what the routines are and what the goal is."
Because of the Rockies' small-to-mid-market status and the lack of winning in recent years, Arenado seems to have exploded into the national consciousness. But Colorado has expected him to be a star ever since the club selected him in the second round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft out of El Toro High School in Lake Forest, Calif.
Arenado foreshadowed his offensive production in 2011 at Class A Advanced Modesto, when he hit .298 and led the Minors in RBIs with 122. He finished the year by earning the Arizona Fall League Most Valuable Player Award, with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper also playing.
Deemed ready for the Majors a month into last season, Arenado excelled defensively and battled with intermittent success at the plate -- .267 with a .301 on-base percentage, 10 home runs and 52 RBIs. An encouraging stat for the Rockies was his low strikeout total, 72 in 486 at-bats. Manager Walt Weiss and new hitting coach Blake Doyle, who worked with the club as a consultant last year, saw Arenado's strong start this year on the horizon.
"[Arenado has] always hit, so we felt like this guy was going to impact the game on that side of the ball," Weiss said. "He wants to be a great player. For me, that's his biggest strength of any that he has, the passion to be great."
Doyle said Arenado's offseason work to improve his body control has made the difference between some of the less-than-solid contact last year and the line drives this year.
"'Controlled aggression' is the term we use for being under control at the plate," Doyle said. "I saw great potential because of [Arenado's] bat speed when he's under control. He hasn't increased the aggression part. It looked like he wasn't aggressive because his body was out of control. The whole key to it is the control -- balance, rhythm and timing."
The hitting has also been team-oriented. During the 28-game streak, Arenado went 40-for-111 with four home runs, 11 doubles and 20 RBIs. The fact that 37.5 percent of his hits went for extra bases -- including five doubles and two homers out of nine hits in the final six games -- demonstrates that he was intent on damage, rather than streak preservation.
"That streak lasted as long as it did because I was concerned about helping the team win, not getting a hit," Arenado said.
The streak ended with Arenado taking some close pitches, including one the Reds thought should've been a called third strike, from Jonathan Broxton before drawing a walk in the ninth inning Friday night. Justin Morneau drove him in to tie the game. Although Joey Votto won it for Cincinnati with a homer in the bottom of the ninth, Arenado's unselfish at-bat drew notice from teammates.
Some of Arenado's spectacular defensive plays, usually when he is playing on anticipation and reaction, have also led to wins.
"[Arenado] just has it," said teammate Michael Cuddyer, who has played third in the Majors and says Arenado is the best he's seen, especially given his age. "He's got the instincts. He's got the athletic ability. The fearlessness -- not many guys can turn around and throw it to first without looking, without fear of missing the bag. He does it routinely."
Arenado, however, has seven errors in 40 games at third this year, after 11 in 130 last year. Most of those are on routine grounders, or they come when he has time and isn't simply reacting -- like a throwing error he made in Sunday's 4-1 loss to the Reds that allowed a run to score. The issue isn't escaping Tulowitzki.
"There's no doubt I think he's fantastic," Tulowitzki said. "But I'll be the guy that's there for him when he gets sloppy with his footwork. That's what a good teammate does. He does not just sit there and say, 'Man, you're the best.' "
"[Tulowitzki is] a friend and a guy who knows how to play to win. He's the best shortstop in the game, arguably the best player in the game," Arenado said.
Arenado can take the tough love, because his passion for baseball came from the happy times with a father who taught him the game.
"My dad was messing around, letting me hit off the tee when I was young, messing around, doing flips [soft-toss] stuff," said Arenado, who has a goal of playing in all 162 games this season -- difficult in Denver's demanding altitude. "He was just helping me out, playing with me, getting me into the sport. I was just getting the bat and swinging it. Later on, he started showing me how to do things the right way."
Maybe his parents' baseball prophecy can strike twice. Arenado has a 19-year-old younger brother who signed with the Giants after being drafted last summer in the 16th round, and he is in the team's extended spring camp, waiting to be sent to a short-season league.
"My little brother is Jonah, from the Bible," Arenado said. "Jonah Brooks, for Brooks Robinson."