Nolan Arenado and beating the Coors effect

Any time a player is successful playing in Colorado, much is chalked up to the Coors Field effect (Larry Walker, anyone?). Thanks to playing at a high altitude, the pitches break less (fewer strikeouts), and batted balls travel farther (more dingers). The same batted balls also fall quicker, and with more space in the outfield to compensate for the increased homers, this results in extra bases at a more frequent rate.

It’s pretty intuitive to follow why many discount the performances of players in Colorado, especially when seeing the home and road splits, which are usually larger for the Rockies than any other team. There’s clearly a Coors hangover (although only one definition fits the scope of this article), and hence many fantasy owners stay weary of picking up players with such stark contrast in their splits and avoid those who leave Colorado.

It’s generally a good idea with Rockies hitters to draft a good backup to their position, a competent player who can play over him when the Rockies travel on the road. But Nolan Arenado is different than the usual Coors beneficiary, in that his stats are propped up by the high altitude far less than how we usually see. He hit 19 homers at home and 18 on the road, with three fewer games played at home, and his wRC+ drop was also minimal, from 133 to 126. Arenado is certainly an MVP caliber hitter, and he showed last year that he was able to maintain that level of play even away from home.

And this isn’t something new with Arenado. In 2016 his home/road splits were 25 to 16 homers, and his wRC+ was 136 to 116. And 2015 saw even smoother splits, with 22 road homers to 20 home, and wRC+ of 123 at home to 119 away. I’ve written before about the Coors hangover, and in a nutshell the pitches just look so different at altitude that it takes players some time to adjust once leaving. This is why the Rockies seem to always have the biggest home and road split offensively, and players traded from them take a year or two until they find their stride again (if they ever do). Arenado shows insane baseball IQ to limit the effects of this, mashing home and away. Why it’s still being recommended to draft a backup in case his splits worsen is beyond me; he’s proven his effectiveness no matter the park.

And while we can say with confidence that Arenado knows how to hit no matter the location, what I’ve understated until this point is just how great his offense is, which makes this trait such a big deal. Arenado was just three homers shy of his third consecutive 40-homer season, and he has steadily increased his batting average from .287, to .294, and now to .309, showing not only elite power but contact as well. And different than many power hitters, he doesn’t rely on the “swing out of your shoes” approach adopted by many of today’s mashers. His strikeout rate has hovered around 15% the last three years, with a point variation in two, and his three-year average is six percentage points below the league average, an astounding number considering his power numbers.

Arenado’s approach at the dish supplements his natural talent and strength well. He hits about 45% fly balls, which is going to translate well playing games in his park, but also on the road. His 16% HR/FB rate is nowhere near close to regression territory and is a very sustainable mark, meaning the homers are legit and here to stay. And his batting average hasn’t been propped up by the line drive rate, which is another signal for incoming regression, as hitters don’t deviate from 20% for more than about a season’s worth of games.

His BABIP has increased, however, which tend to also mean regression is coming, but Arenado has managed to increase his opposite field hit rate, up 5 percentage points the past three years, increasing each season. Someone spreading balls all over the field makes it tougher for defenses to match up on him, eliminating any possible shift (even as a right handed hitter). That’s why he’s able to increase his balls in play batting average.

There are a lot of talking point about why Arenado is a dangerous bet, but none of them have any actual weight when you look into them. He has minimal home and road splits (not to mention some splits are common in every hitter), his batted ball profile matches his output, and any potential sign of regression has another peripheral stat to explain why he’s legit. Don’t shy away from Arenado. He’s as good as they come, and his consistency will make sure of that. Pay up in keeper leagues, and do not hesitate to spend that first-round pick on him.

 

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James Krueger

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James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.

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