Having turned 28 three weeks into the 2019 season, Nolan Arenado had already claimed his sixth Gold Glove even though—in terms of service time—he was four weeks shy of having played six big-league seasons.
Arenado, the defending National League home-run champion, is a five-time All-Star whose been elected to the starting lineup in each of the last three years. Oh, and he’s won a Silver Slugger for each of the last four seasons.
So just how good is he?
Well, Rene Lachemann, who is in his 56th year in pro ball as a player, coach, manager and most recently a scout, was asked at a Boy Scout banquet in Cheyenne, Wyoming, about his favorite big-league player.
“I used to think nobody could match Brooks (Robinson),” Lachemann said, “but Nolan Arenado … I’ve seen him do something one day and I’ll say, ‘I’ve never seen that before,’ and the next game, I’m saying it again. He’s in a class all his own.”
The story was related to Larry Bowa, who spent more than four decades in the professional game himself, including winning two Gold Gloves at shortstop. Lachemann’s proclamation made Bowa smile.
“I was like that with Schmidty,” Bowa said of his longtime Philadelphia Phillies teammate, Mike Schmidt, a Hall of Famer.
Then along came Arenado.
“I don’t know if he knows it, but my favorite player is the third baseman (in Colorado),” Bowa said. “Being on the East Coast when I was coaching (with the Phillies), I would go home and turn on the Rockies game. My wife said, ‘What are you doing watching Colorado?’ I told her, ‘I love to watch this kid play third.’”
And how does Schmidt feel about that?
“In my opinion, Nolan Arenado is the heir apparent to the all-time greatest third baseman,” said Schmidt, a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1995. “He puts up numbers I never even dreamed of. I don’t think George Brett did or Chipper Jones did, either. His numbers are crazy, and he hasn’t won an MVP yet. That’s really crazy.”
Oh, and then there is his defense, which those who watch him on a regular basis are convinced is the best part of his game.
“How many guys have six Gold Gloves before they have six full seasons in the big leagues?” asked Lachemann.
And it is not just Arenado’s skills that draw attention.
“I like to see guys who are hard workers, who respect the game and don’t take it for granted,” Bowa said. “Everyone thinks if you get a big-league uniform, you’re going to be here for 10 years. It doesn’t work like that. The longer you’re here, the harder you have to work. So, when I see work ethic, I respect that.”
Arenado respects the fact that baseball people like Lachemann, Bowa and Schmidt hold him with such high regard.
“They have been in this game a long time and have seen so many great players,” said Arenado, who finished third in NL MVP voting in 2018. “For them to talk about me like that is humbling. It is an incentive for me to work harder. When people respect you like that, you don’t want to let them down.
“When they compared me to those other third basemen, those guys have longevity in the game and that’s what I want to do. I don’t want people to be like, ‘Hey, what happened to that Arenado guy?’ I appreciate this game. I appreciate what people with so much passion for the game say. It makes me want to work harder.”
Arenado has. He takes special satisfaction in his successful big-league career because he knows it is the result of pure focus, determination and hard work. The Rockies drafted Arenado in the second round in 2009 out of high school in Lake Forest, California.
Rockies scouting director Bill Schmidt calls Arenado’s emergence as the premiere third baseman in the big leagues a tribute to Arenado, who he says is arguably the biggest surprise of the 20 drafts he has overseen for the Rockies.
But he was a second-round choice, Schmidt was told.
“Well, if I knew he was this good, you think I would have taken three players before him who never got to the big leagues?” Schmidt said. “Give him credit. He proved what he could do. He didn’t pout. He didn’t feel sorry for himself. He was given a challenge, and he responded.”
The challenge was simple. A bulky shortstop at El Toro High School, Arenado was told by virtually every scouting director who talked to him before that 2009 draft that he would be converted to a catcher. Baseball America even ranked him as the 17th best catcher in the draft that year.
The Rockies were the one outlier. With a strong push from area scout Jon Lukens, and the endorsement of national cross-checker Ty Coslow, Schmidt used the Rockies’ secondround selection—the 59th pick in the ’09 draft—on Arenado.
When the Rockies offered him the chance to initially play third base, something other teams declined to do, that was all Arenado needed to pass on a scholarship to Arizona State and sign out of the draft. He welcomed the challenge.
“I always believed I could play in the infield, but I was a little slow and I could see why teams had questions,” Arenado said. “I was a little out of shape, too.”
Gabe Bauer, the Rockies’ director of physical performance who was working at the minor-league level at the time, was charged with providing Arenado conditioning guidance.
“He was telling me I was going to get moved (to catcher) if I didn’t get in shape,” Arenado said. “I lost 20 pounds that first offseason. I came back lean and ready to go.”
And then, in 2011, his second full season in pro ball, he reached high Class-A Modesto, where he got to know Nuts manager Jerry Weinstein, a veteran baseball man who has spent his career coaching at the college level and working in the minor leagues.
“It’s not reaction, it’s planning. When I’m waiting for the next pitch, in my mind, I’m thinking about everything that could possibly happen and how I will react. And then, when it happens, I react.”
Weinstein called Arenado’s bluff.
“We worked early almost every day,” Arenado said. “It didn’t matter if we had a late bus ride the night before. Every day we had a workout at 1:00 p.m. Then we had batting practice, some drills again, then play the game. He gave me the push on those days I didn’t want to work. He wouldn’t let me slack off.”
Arenado breaks into a big smile. “I hated him for two years,” Arenado said. “But then I realized what he had done for me. I apologized to him.”
Weinstein laughed when that exchange was relayed to him.
“He didn’t hate me,” Weinstein said. “He loved me. You didn’t have to push him. He pushed himself. He was the ultimate (hitter) with guys on base. He loved that situation. And he did stuff on defense better than anybody else.
“I have no doubts about him. He has as good an internal clock and as much confidence as anybody who has played this game. That’s not because of me or anyone else who coached him. That’s a family thing.
“His dad, Fernando, would call me and say, ‘Make sure you are hard on Nolan. Make sure he takes his job seriously.’ Nolan is the way he is because of his family. There’s an obvious DNA there. He is possessed.”
And Arenado learned well. His focus is on what he can do to get better. He doesn’t get sidetracked.
“It’s never-ending work,” Arenado said. “I don’t want to let up. You could get lazy out here. I think the older you get, the more you have to keep on it. So, I always try to do my drills, and do them the same way I did my rookie year.
“I don’t want to get passed by anyone. When you win a Gold Glove, you don’t want to give that up ever.”
Arenado’s mind never stops. One day a member of the media mentioned to Arenado how impressive his ability to instantly react to situations was.
“It’s not reaction,” Arenado said. “It’s planning. When I’m waiting for the next pitch, in my mind, I’m thinking about everything that could possibly happen and how I will react. And then, when it happens, I react.”
Sounds like a bit of a tall tale, but not to those who know Arenado. Trevor Story is in his fourth year as the Rockies’ starting shortstop, which means he is in his fourth year standing in the field next to Arenado, marveling at his defensive abilities.
“I feel like I have a lot of range as well, but Nolan is on another level,” Story said. “His range is ridiculous. His handeye is the best I’ve ever seen, and not just in baseball. ping-pong, basketball, golf. He’s really good at everything.”
That’s what Lukens told Schmidt back when Arenado was in high school. He saw the offensive potential of Arenado.
“He had those quick hands,” Lukens said. “There was a game (for his high school travel squad) at Long Beach State and that field had trick hops, but not for Nolan. He caught everything hit his way.”
And he hit.
“He always focused on hitting line drives, and had that short stroke,” Lukens said. “I think he hit eight or nine home runs in his (high school) career, but he could punish a ball in the gap. We had people come in to watch him, and he knew they were there, but the kid stayed with his approach. His barrel rate was so impressive.”
“I appreciate this game. I appreciate what people with so much passion for the game say. It makes me want to work harder.”
Arenado had what Lukens calls “it.” There’s no place to check a box on the evaluation form, but there are a couple lines for comments, and that was easy to fill out on Arenado.
“You could see him dreaming, seeing himself in the big leagues,” Lukens said. “It was never about baseball being a business. It always was a game for him, and a love he had for the game. That’s why when he signed that big contract (eight years, $260 million this past spring), it didn’t affect him.
“He’s not playing the game for a business. He’s playing the game because of a passion.”
Arenado could have gone through the 2019 season and become a free agent for the first time, but he is at home in Colorado.
“It wasn’t too hard,” he said of agreeing to the contract. “Part of me wanted to go on the open market and test it because you can’t help but want to experience that. But part of me wanted to stay.
“The Rockies came up with an offer and it was a no-brainer. I know that I’m comfortable here. I know I fit with this team. There was no reason to change that.”
The Rockies are certainly happy he didn’t look for a change of scenery.
They know they have something special.
So does the rest of baseball.
The Rockies were on the East Coast last summer, and the Giants were at home. Late in the game, the opposing third baseman made a sprawling play. Giants announcer and former big-league pitcher Mike Krukow was impressed.
“There isn’t anybody else who could make a play like that,” said Krukow.
“Except Arenado,” said Krukow’s broadcast partner, Duane Kuiper.
“But he’s not anybody,” said Krukow. “He’s Arenado.”
Tracy Ringolsby, the 2005 J.G. Taylor Spink Award honoree, is in his 44th year of covering baseball. He, his wife, Jane, and five horses live outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming. ■