The Rockies are a mess. They’ve finished fourth or fifth in each of the past five seasons; they’ve trailed the division winner by 20 or more games in all but one of those years (when they checked in 18 games back); and last July they traded their face-of-the-franchise shortstop for, among other (admittedly more important, promising) pieces, a veteran who is now suspended indefinitely following a domestic assault arrest. It’s been all downhill since their divisional-round exit in 2009, and provided you trust PECOTA’s 74-win projection, there’s little reason to believe their fortunes will change over the next seven months. You’d almost be justified in ignoring them. Almost.
Yet even with all that established, there is a good, arguably great reason to pay heed to the 2016 Rockies: Nolan Arenado. Arenado’s transition from a bat-only prospect (“He's a below-average runner and projects as no more than acceptable at third base,” wrote Kevin Goldstein in January 2011) to a well-rounded stud has been remarkable and quick. His credentials are almost as impressive: He’s won three consecutive Gold Glove awards, and last season he led the National League with 42 home runs and 130 runs batted in (and, lest you think his season was a cold, hard Coors Field illusion, his park-adjusted .299 True Average ranked fifth among third basemen with more than 500 plate appearances).
The first part—Arenado’s splendid defense—is the aspect we’ll focus on here in selling the Rockies’ watchability. You can always use box scores to figure out if and when he homered or had a big offensive night. It’s not as simple to learn when he made a pair of stunning plays with his glove. The best argument to watch the Rockies—especially their defensive half-innings—is for the chance to see Arenado make a difficult play look easy. And boy, does he deliver often.
To illustrate that point, let’s take a look at Arenado making the signature play of other well-regarded third basemen. First a caveat: there’s no real way to determine who is the best at charging the ball, ranging into the outfield, diving into the stands, or whatever else. If you want to sub in someone else’s name, by all means, go ahead; the plays themselves are what’s important, not the players attached to them. Now, let’s watch some Web Gems.
Adrian Beltre makes this play seemingly once a game on a bunt or chopper down the line. It’s a toughie that tests a player’s balance, hands (or hand, anyway), and arm strength, since the throw is often delivered from an off-balance position. Arenado’s rendition above is pretty good. He has to charge in from playing back, secure the ball on a low hop, and then throw out Jimmy Rollins—who, while not as quick as he used to be, wasn’t running at Molina-like speeds.
In the past, this would’ve been called The Jeter. Lately, however, Josh Donaldson has become synonymous with going into the stands. Arenado has done it a fair amount, too. If we’re being frank, the one featured above wasn’t the most impressive of the bunch—in fact, the most impressive (here) didn’t result in an out. Subtract points for failed execution if you must, but consider the broader context: The Rockies had a two-run lead and were trying to escape a bases-loaded jam in a fairly meaningless September tilt against the Padres. Nobody would’ve blamed Arenado for throwing up his hands and hoping for another opportunity. Instead he dove almost into the second row. That’s insane, and impressive.
If you watch the Rays with any consistency, you’ve seen Evan Longoria begin a difficult around-the-horn double play. Arenado makes the one above look a little too easy. Think about everything he had to do within the window of a few seconds: move to his right, backhand the ball, maneuver his body so he could get a throw off, and then make an accurate throw with enough zip to reach second base. Neither runner is a speedster, but it doesn’t matter. This isn’t an easy play; Arenado just makes it look that way.
Get it? Because he’s evading the bat and . . . nevermind.
Three BP staff members who were polled suggested David Wright was the best third baseman at ranging into the outfield to secure an out. Think this play had anything to do with that? While Arenado’s isn’t as memorable—how could it be?—it’s still something. Not only did he run all the way from third base to the outfield cutout, he made an over-the-back catch that saved a run from scoring. Aces.
The last play we’ll show from the best defensive third baseman in the National League is one popularized by Manny Machado, the feller many consider the best defensive third baseman in the American League. It’s a play that garners hoots and hollers for the arm strength displayed as much as anything. Ignore that there’s a catcher running and look at where Arenado is when he releases the ball: a step away from being in the outfield, and about even with the coach’s box. That’s a long distance to cover with an accurate throw—and that’s without considering his momentum is working against him. Arenado gets it there on a (last-second) hop.
So why pay attention to these hapless Rockies? Because Arenado is one of the best players in baseball. Someone who can make all the plays at the hot corner, then turn around and lead the league in home runs. This is going to be his age-25 season; don’t miss it.