This past week, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado was awarded his fifth-consecutive National League Rawlings Gold Glove for his defensive excellence at the hot corner. At just 26 years old, Arenado has emerged as not only one of the game’s premier young talents, but amongst the best players in Major League Baseball.
Whether you were paying attention or not, you almost certainly have seen Arenado on a highlight reel package, perhaps SportsCenter’s Top 10. His throws, his dives, his overall athleticism, and his pure knack for intelligently reading the path of the ball are things baseball fans should forever be gushing over.
He’s a run-suppressing force never before seen. The scary thing is, Arenado will only get better. This might be interpreted as a hot take, or least a mild one, but it’s time to say Nolan Arenado is the best defensive third baseman in the history of the American pastime. If it seems crazy to say that, it’s because it is a little crazy.
Arenado is just 26 (an age at which decent percentage of players are just now entering the majors), and is — in an essence — just getting started with his promising career, currently playing at a position stacked with recognizable faces and all-purpose dynamos.
It might feel a little idiosyncratic to assign this label to Nolan Arenado already. However, the awards, the statistics, and a different way of looking at things can all prove this. Arenado, the centerfold of an up-and-coming Rockies team, has a baseball-reference.com page that looks a tad bit ridiculous at this point.
The native of Newport Beach, California was the 2017 National League leader in fielding percentage (.970), putouts at third base (103), three times the statistical top third baseman in defensive games, assists, and double plays turned at third, a four-time leader in range factor per nine innings, and a five-time champion of the range factor per game at third metric.
Combine this with twice leading the National League in home runs, runs batted in, and total bases (although it is important to be weary of the infamous Coors Field effect), and you have the preeminent hot corner guy in baseball. Look at the entire scope of baseball past, and you have the foremost defensive third baseman ever.
You might be thinking, “Well, what about Brooks Robinson,” and I was hesitant in writing this when I thought the same. Robinson, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, won the Gold Glove an incomprehensible 16 times, being voting onto 18 All-Star teams in the process of his 23-year career with the Baltimore Orioles.
Heck, what about Hall-of-Famer Mike Schmidt, or Clete Boyer, who had played at the same time as Robinson and was arguably better (obviously I wouldn’t know, take it from old-timey baseball guys). Or two more recent guys, one still being active, who have made a living in flashing the leather, Scott Rolen and Adrian Beltre.
Again, you have to look at the outlying factors that separate Arenado from Robinson, Beltre, Schmidt, Boyer, or Rolen type players. That is, to me, the era in which they played, the competition they faced, and awards/statistics.
First, the era. Right now, Major League Baseball is experiencing its biggest power surge since the late-90s, early-2000s steroid era, all without what drove power-hitting numbers up then: the performance-enhancing drugs themselves. The 6,105 home runs hit in 2017 were the most in a single season in baseball history, meaning there’s never been a better time to be a power-hitter, which in turn makes a defender’s job that much harder.
To think Arenado is pacing all of baseball in the aforementioned stats of range factor, putouts, fielding percentage at third among others is astonishing when you consider the era that favors power-hitters. In addition, 2017 had the highest average of strikeouts per nine innings pitched (8.3), meaning there are more dangerous and hard-hit balls to account for as an infielder.
Secondly, it’s the competition — there are numerous third baseman that are the focal point of their team’s construction in today’s game. Manny Machado, Kris Bryant, Josh Donaldson, Justin Turner, and Jose Ramirez are just some of the names flashing on the left side of the infield. Not to say guys like Schmidt or Robinson didn’t face tough counterparts, but I feel there’s never been a stronger cast of athletes at third now than ever.
For example, no position in MLB during the 2017 season averaged more wins above replacement than the 30+ third-baggers in the game (2.7). Third basemen accounted for seven players worth four or more wins above replacement (Arenado, Bryant, Turner, Donaldson, Alex Bregman, Anthony Rendon, and Jose Ramirez). It truly is a stacked position, of which Arenado is on top.
Not only that, but the natural progression of the top-end human body has made professional athletes more skilled. The training is different, the pre and post-game nutrition and techniques are different, the workout regimens are different, et cetera. Athletes now are far more physically advanced than athletes of before.
Babe Ruth probably wouldn’t make it out of the lower levels of the minor leagues, if he began his career now, and Nolan Ryan would have to scratch and claw his way into the big leagues. It’s hard to confirm this theory with actual research, but to say Nolan Arenado is simply a better athlete than his third base peers is not a stretch.
Here’s a little stat to put the icing on the argument that Arenado is the best third baseman ever: average defensive WAR per season. Arenado, might I remind you, at 26 years old and with a ceiling to only get better from here, beats out Robinson (1.68), Beltre (1.39), Boyer (1.34), Rolen (1.21), and Schmidt (0.98) with a 2.54 average. Arenado, on average, is two and a half full wins over the span of a season than your conventional, cookie-cutter third baseman.
If you need more proof, I’d suggest watching Arenado highlights or just visiting his baseball-reference.com page — both are equally ridiculous. Besides, Brooks Robinson likes him too.