How Nolan Arenado went from good to great

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

In early January, new Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black drove about an hour up Interstate 5 to the campus of UC Irvine for a little get-together with his new star player. Nolan Arenado is the face of the Rockies, and after grabbing lunch with him in November, Black wanted to drop in and throw some batting practice. Following the session, Arenado asked Black for a favor.

“I want to take some grounders,” he said.

Black was taken aback. He played 15 seasons in the major leagues and is in his 10th as manager, and he understood the way players’ schedules worked. “Very few big leaguers take grounders in January,” Black said, “because here comes February and March, and you’re gonna take thousands of them.”

Arenado insisted, and as Black stood across the diamond from him, catching the throws from third base, he was struck by the intensity with which Arenado fielded the ball and threw it. Black wondered if he was showing off for the new boss, and Arenado hoped he wasn’t thinking that, since he soon would learn Arenado’s excellence is matched only by the intensity in his preparation.

Once upon a time, Arenado was a middling third baseman, with soft hands and a strong arm but plodding footwork that rendered the other two tools inert. Now, in an era ripe with great third basemen, Arenado is arguably the best. He could very easily be known for his bat. With 22 more runs batted in, Arenado will cross the 130-RBI threshold for the third consecutive season, becoming the youngest player ever to do so and joining Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Vern Stephens, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz, Ryan Howard, Sammy Sosa and Juan Gonzalez as the only others, period.

And yet he takes even more pride in his glove, named golden in each of his first four seasons and well on its way again, even when some of his finest plays involve nothing but a hand. It’s all the product of multiplying talent by hard work. Every other day in his offseason, starting in December, Arenado goes through a regimented routine to prepare him for the season ahead.

He starts on the back edge of the infield and takes 20 or 30 balls. Then he gets 20 on his forehand side and 20 on his backhand. It’s off to double plays next, with another 20 on each side. Following that: slow rollers Arenado can barehand. Finally it’s back to balls on the cut of the grass, well over 100 reps logged, more ready to go.

Nolan Arenado has won the Gold Glove at third base in each of his four seasons in the majors. (AP)

This fully realized, 26-year-old version of Nolan Arenado can be traced to his 20-year-old self at High-A Modesto, where he realized the raw talent that inspired the Rockies to spend a second-round pick on him wasn’t enough. Back then, Arenado said, “I had really bad feet.” And also: “I was too lazy.” It was a bad combination, one on which Modesto manager Jerry Weinstein harped.

“I would give him attitude all the time,” Arenado said. “We’d have a bus ride from San Bernardino to Modesto and would get in at 3 or 4 in the morning, and he’d say, ‘Nolan, you have early groundballs at 1.’ I wanted to sleep until 1.”

When Arenado slacked on the field, Weinstein barked: “Let’s do this right!” He encouraged Arenado to play in the field like Rickey Henderson did on the basepaths: crouch down, then spring forward to reach the desired spot. Visualizing Henderson helped Arenado. And the execution became easier when Arenado started lifting weights in earnest, providing the base for such explosive movements.

It’s not like Arenado’s feet were bad. He played elite club soccer growing up, and his duties as a forward entailed fancy foot tricks to score goals. The motivation to translate that onto a baseball field simply wasn’t there.

“When I was in high school, it was all about hitting,” Arenado said. “Now, if you can hit OK but are really good on defense, you can be a crucial part of a team. And that’s great. You’re starting to see more ballplayers getting credit for defense. Kevin Pillar can hit, but he’s recognized for playing a great center field. Same with [Kevin] Kiermaier. They’re known for changing games with their defense.”

Nolan Arenado is a leader for the Rockies with both his glove and his bat, which is why he will once again garner MVP votes. (AP)

He is in that category. The off-balance throws. The charging miracles. The tarp play. Arenado didn’t exactly redefine what a player can do at third base, but he and Manny Machado and Anthony Rendon are standard bearers for the hit-and-catch elite of today.

It’s why Arenado has logged MVP votes each of the last two seasons and why he’ll do so again this year: There’s really little to nitpick about his game. After hitting his 29th home run Wednesday, Arenado is hitting .311/.368/.600, each a career high, and not only will that thrust him front and center in the NL MVP race, the prospect of him winning another Gold Glove – and not just one of those on reputation – leaves him with a little credit to dish out.

Over the winter, as he was readying for a camp his father, Fernando, puts on, Arenado needed a glove. He packs his game-used ones away for the winter, so he was forced to scavenge around for a new one, and it felt perfect. It also belonged to his brother Jonah, an infielder in the Giants’ system, and Arenado understood he needed to do a little bartering.

“I picked it up and put it on and said, ‘This is gonna be my gamer this year,’ ” Arenado said. And he said, ‘But if you win the Gold Glove, you have to give me credit.’ ”

So, Jonah, consider this your credit. Your brother, destroyer of baseballs with bat and dreams with glove, borrowed a Rawlings Model Pro12-6TI from you and is … pretty much the same as he was the last four years. So maybe it’s not the glove. (Correction: It definitely is not the glove.) Still, a peek inside it is fascinating. Its leather is cracked, its pocket worn deep, its floppiness suiting Arenado perfectly. A craftsman is only as good as his tools.

Few have the tools of Arenado, which is why Black left that January day so giddy. As manager of the San Diego Padres, he had seen Arenado grow into a force, but to know the substance behind it heartened Black even more. Today, as the Rockies try to cling to the National League’s second wild-card spot, Black walks around pregame in what almost looks like a pop-art shirt.

Squint a bit and the picture becomes obvious: It’s Arenado’s face after he hit a walk-off home run to complete a cycle in June and got sliced on the eyebrow during the ensuing melee. Most of the shirt is purple, the outline of his face black and little bits of it where the fallout of the cut dripped red. Nolan Arenado is, as ever, that bloody good.

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