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Negative Nolan: What's Going On With Arenado's Runs Saved?

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What Nolan Arenado did at third base from 2013 to 2022 was extraordinary. If it were easy to average 15 Defensive Runs a season at the hot corner, lots of players would do it. But Arenado stands alone with his skill and has the hardware in Gold Gloves (10) and Fielding Bible Awards (5) to back it up.

But this 2023 season has been befuddling in many ways for the Cardinals. One of those ways is that Arenado’s defense has not been close to its usual standards.

Arenado enters Friday with -1 Runs Saved. That’s -1 as in negative-1.

He’s not anywhere close to his usual spot near the top of the MLB leaderboard. The top three are currently Arenado’s division rival, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Arenado’s replacement with the Rockies, Ryan McMahon, and Arenado’s former high school teammate, Matt Chapman.

Now, we’re only a little more than 40% of the way through the season and there are reasons that awards are given out for 162 games rather than 60 to 70. Arenado could easily rip off a great defensive stretch and make up a lot of ground in a short amount of time.

That would mean believing in his track record over the small sample.

The track record is fantastic. The small sample is … not.

What’s Going On?

What stands out is that Arenado is lacking the high-value play. That’s the kind he had plenty of in past years.

We could cherrypick Arenado’s numbers any number of ways, but for the purposes of simplicity. In the chart below, the first column counts the number of plays Arenado made that were worth at least a half-run in Defensive Runs Saved–these are generally the toughest balls on which to get outs.

And the second column counts the number of plays that cost him at least a half-run. These are generally the easier plays on Arenado’s ledger.

Nolan Arenado - Plays Made By Run Value

Nolan Arenado plays v3

A closer look

When watching Arenado at his best, he does so many things well. He can do a quick spin. He can very calmly make a throw off a barehand play to get the batter at first base. And he can make the diving play when needed.

That’s why Cardinals broadcaster Chip Caray would have such confidence that Arenado was going to make a play like this one against Mookie Betts and the Dodgers on May 19.

Entering that day, Arenado seemed reasonably on track from a statistical perspective. He had 4 Defensive Runs Saved. But since May 19, Arenado has -5 Runs Saved, tied for the worst total at the position in that time.

Since then, Arenado has had a collection of botches uncharacteristic of his defensive nature. Nine of the 15 plays that cost him at least a half-run have come in this time.

There are two other things noticeable in the video and data.

First, from 2018 to 2022, Arenado has ~400 more touches on his forehand than on his backhand. His ratio of forehand touches to backhand touches is about 1.6-to-1.

This season, that ratio of opportunities is almost exactly 1-to-1 (72 backhand touches, 71 forehand touches). As an infielder you’d ideally want as many forehand chances as possible.

Arenado has consistently converted forehand chances at about a 94% rate. Backhands are harder. Arenado is converting them into outs at 81% this season, down from his 89% rate of 2018 to 2022.

The second notable thing is that in looking at Arenado’s season sample, it seems lacking in the kinds of chances that Arenado is known for – barehand plays

The last four full seasons, Arenado has attempted a barehand 37, 36, 28, and 21 times, converting 56 of 122 into outs. This season, he’s had only 5 opportunities, converting 2.

In Sum

You might say that we should cut Arenado some slack, as he’s long proven that he’s world class. That’s perfectly fair.

But if you want to post 15 Runs Saved in a season at third base and win Fielding Bible Awards, chances are your season’s going to need some of those kinds of plays. And if the Cardinals want to make up the ground necessary to be in the playoff race, they’re going to need their third baseman to defend like his old self.

To see a version of this article with more video examples, check out the version on our website.

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