It’s that time of year again.
The return of Nolan Arenado to Denver.
Regardless of how salty you might feel over the separation between Arenado and the Colorado Rockies, you can’t deny the outstanding career he’s put together so far during his ten seasons in Major League Baseball.
“If I’m thinking back to everything, the walk-off cycle is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in baseball, in general,” Colorado native Lucas Gilbreath said of the six-time All-Star.
There’s the tarp catch in San Francisco. That charging of the mound against Luis Perdomo. And the everyday highlight-making plays that have became so common for him, especially that barehanded grab-and-throw.
Altogether, it’s earned him nine consecutive Gold Glove Awards at the hot corner, most to begin a career by an infielder.
The trade that sent Arenado to the St. Louis Cardinals ahead of the 2021 season is a little more than 18 months ago, believe it or not.
Yet, several players on the current Rockies’ 26-man roster have never played alongside the superstar third baseman. Some, like Robert Stephenson, remember him only as an opponent.
“This city knows exactly what Nolan’s capable of and he’s always been a really good player,” said the former Reds reliever. “I’ve had to grind through at bats with that guy….”
After leaving the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field, Arenado has somehow managed to become an even better player and teammate.
His best pair of seasons at the plate in Denver, statistically speaking, were either 2017-18 or 2018-19 when he posted a 132 OPS+ across both sets with Colorado.
Even with five top-10 finishes in National League MVP voting, the idea that Arenado – and dozens of other successful hitters before him with the franchise – was a product of his environment is a tired concept for those uninformed about baseball at altitude.
“I definitely wanted to prove people wrong,” Arenado said on Tuesday of the Coors-creation label. “It used to bother me a lot. And then I just got over it because I know who I am as a player…I think it’s really a disservice to the players that play here. I think even the players that are playing here now. I think if you’re playing well, you can play well anywhere. That’s always been my thought.”
Bud Black seconded the idea of the double-standard. Performing 81 times a year at 5,280 feet above sea level presents challenges. Same with the largest outfield in the NL,
Helped mostly by his offensive production this year, Arenado has a 135 OPS+ since joining the Cardinals at the start of 2021, his highest over a two-year span.
Not bad when considering Busch Stadium is one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in the game.
“Last year I didn’t do (what) I expected to do,” the 31-year-old shared. “I still drove in 100. Still hit 30 (home runs). So those are still important things and we made the playoffs.”
As one of the clubs to reach the postseason as an NL Wild Card in ’21, Arenado is still in search of his first division pennant.
With the easiest schedule in the Senior Circuit over their final 54 games, the Cardinals shouldn’t have too much difficulty helping Nolan achieve his goal. (Four against the Nationals, six against the Rockies, three at home with the Diamondback and a whopping 23 games against three of the four worst teams in the league – Cubs, Reds and Pirates – give them quite the edge in the NL Central.)
Though he made a surprising error early in the Rockies’ 16-5 win on Tuesday, Arenado still plays otherworldly defense. He won his fifth-consecutive Platinum Glove Award last season as the best defender in all of MLB, most since the honor was first created in 2011.
One thing that has changed a bit is the way Arenado has taken younger players under his wing with more ease.
Towards the end of his tenure in Colorado, he still had older players like DJ LeMahieu and Charlie Blackmon in the clubhouse. Homegrown veterans like Trevor Story and Jon Gray also shared the leadership load.
In St. Louis, it’s a similar vibe with Hall of Famers Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina as well as his contemporary on the corner in Paul Goldschmidt.
But Arenado has taken a liking to a few of the rookie Redbirds, in particular Lars Nootbar.
“I think we just clicked early on,” the 24-year-old from El Segundo, CA said. “I think his willingness to be able to give me his tips was huge for me, especially knowing that a guy of his stature was willing to give me some advice. I don’t take that for granted, that’s for sure. I keep trying to learn every day after him and I’m forever grateful for that.”
The two guys from Southern California worked out together during the offseason. Just as Troy Tulowtizki hammered a certain work ethic into a young Arenado, the role has reversed.
“And his mentality,” added Nootbar when discussing the lessons he’s learned. “He’s got a different mentality from a lot of guys and it’s something that I’ve definitely learned from. All the all-time greats, it seems like they have that edge to them and he’s definitely got that.”
Should Arenado finally win his division while presumably winning his 10th consecutive Gold Glove Award and getting in the top-10 of NL MVP voting once again, next on his list will be performing to his caliber in the postseason.
If we know anything about Arenado, he’ll have his way.