Following his go-ahead home run in the eighth inning of his first game at Busch Stadium, Nolan Arenado was annointed as a superhero. Sure, St. Louis Cardinals fans would have been excited had John Nogowski or whoever else hit the home run, but because it came off the bat of Nolan Arenado, a player deemed the new life force of the St. Louis Cardinals, it was viewed as an important moment in the larger narrative of Nolan Arenado rather than merely a winning hit.
By the end of his first home series with the Cardinals, Nolan Arenado had notched a hit in every game he had played with the team. Arenado had produced a hit in a third of his at-bats and his 159 wRC+, if sustained for a full season, would be the highest Cardinals single-season mark in a decade. He was clearly endearing himself in the early going to his new fans.
Nolan Arenado’s 50 plate appearances post-Opening Weekend in St. Louis have been considerably less fruitful. In those games, Arenado has a .191 batting average and an outright terrible .240 on-base percentage. For the last two weeks, the worst hitter in the Cardinals’ regular starting lineup has been Matt Carpenter, but with Carpenter now relegated to pinch-hitting duty with the return of Tyler O’Neill, that distinction falls to Nolan Arenado.
This entire exercise revolves around looking at two tiny sample sizes which, even if combined, aren’t large enough to tell us that much about a player. The average baseball fan with even moderate knowledge of how statistics work could accurately guess the primary culprit for why Arenado got off to such a great start and has been so mediocre for the next two weeks after it–luck. Over his first 39 plate appearances, Arenado had a batting average on balls in play of .370, and over his last 50 plate appearances, his BABIP stands at .189.
On the whole, Arenado’s BABIP is .266, which is still a bit low, though far less cartoonishly so than his sub-samples indicate. The temptation might be to note Arenado’s fairly low batting average on balls in play and bump his decidedly okay 105 wRC+ up a few points to something more reminiscent of his career norms. But aside from a basic “look at BABIP and jump to a conclusion” peripheral glance, Nolan Arenado’s underlying numbers suggest that he is actually overachieving to this point. Among the team’s nine Cardinals hitters who qualify for MLB’s Statcast leaderboards, Arenado actually has the lowest expected wOBA. Only Dylan Carlson and Yadier Molina, who have the strongest raw offensive raw production on the team in 2021, have overachieved more. Arenado is walking considerably less than he has in any season since 2021 while striking out to levels which, while not quite yet a problem, are higher than desired. Per Baseball Info Solutions, Arenado’s percentage of batted balls which are classified as “Soft” is at a career-high, and his “Hard” percentage is at its lowest mark since his rookie campaign of 2013. His 23.5% infield fly ball rate doesn’t seem sustainable, which is good if for no other reason than because it is aesthetically disastrous.
From an armchair manager perspective, it really doesn’t matter how Nolan Arenado does–he’s going to play. He might be, as easily as I can look into Matt Carpenter’s batted ball stats and talk myself into a ticking time bomb of offensive production, the single most locked into his position player on the entire roster. And Arenado has still, on the whole, been an above-average player on the season. An amusing aspect of Nolan Arenado’s 2021 is that according to the ZiPS projection system, it is extremely on track. He has a 105 wRC+, which is on the dot where he was projected to wind up. ZiPS even projected a BABIP dip, though to .268 rather than to .266.
These projections seemed a little pessimistic to me before the season, and I think they probably still are, but it isn’t difficult to understand them. A 105 wRC+ is a dramatic improvement over Arenado’s abridged 2020 season, the lingering injuries usually used to justify his poor 2020 production were not guaranteed to go away in 2021, and Arenado’s prime wRC+ marks typically landed around 130, not 180. Arenado at his best is a really good hitter, but not an MVP-caliber hitter. And that Nolan Arenado is now 30, hardly ancient but probably slightly past his athletic prime, isn’t an insignificant factor. As for his BABIP, Arenado’s BABIP marks over his first eight seasons were surprisingly tame considering he played his home games in the spacious Coors Field. Normally, a low BABIP is viewed as a sign that a player got unlucky, but over an eight year period, it’s more reasonable to believe that it reflects the type of hitter he actually is.
Nolan Arenado is going to be fine, but the numbers he put up prior to this season are informative about the kind of player he is. As much as Arenado was sold as a transformational talent, he isn’t quite that. And this is completely fine–a lineup of Nolan Arenado equivalents would be a truly great team. But the Cardinals acquired a player about to enter the wrong side of 30 whose value is largely derived from spectacular defensive play (his defensive metrics are down this year, but it is far too early to know how much to chalk up to age and how much to chalk up to “it hasn’t even been a month yet, dude”) and whose most spectacular offensive numbers were inherently tied to playing in the greatest offensive fortress of the modern era of baseball. The key to appreciating Nolan Arenado is likely going to be tempered expectations. If you expected him to find another level because of Devil Magic, you will almost certainly be disappointed. If you’re content with a 3-4 WAR player who can provide solid two-way play, hopefully accompanied by more dynamic offensive threats in the lineup, he’s probably still better than Austin Gomber.