Every time I’ve done an in-depth comparison of a player, it’s been of a player who has either had a brief appearance in the majors, or is about to. This comparison will be of Rockies third base prospect Nolan Arenado, who just completed a full season of High-A ball, making him the furthest prospect from the majors on whom I’ve tried this exercise.
Which won’t make a difference. The mechanics of these comparisons are the same no matter what level the prospect is currently taking on. The only thing that differs is the likelihood of the possible “what ifs” happening.
When we do a comparison, we take into consideration the player’s flaws, and what will happen if they are corrected, and what will happen if they are not. The further down on the development ladder a player is, the more question there is as to whether or not a player will fulfill his potential. In the case of Arenado, the same questions persist that are there for many prospects. The only question is, what are the odds of him overcoming them?
Let’s find out.
What we know: Arenado is a 6’1” 205 lb. right-handed hitting third baseman who is expected to be able to stay at the position defensively. He does not strike out much for a player with good power.
“His swing has a flat path, but he gets good extension and has shown an increased ability to hit balls with backspin, which should lead to solid or better power. He controls the strike zone well and is starting to draw more walks.”
“Unlike a lot of players that perform well in the potent California League, Arenado’s numbers are pretty much 100% legit. He has plus power potential to all fields and he has a strong feel for the strike zone, as witnessed by his strikeout rate of 9.1%, which is ridiculously good for a power hitter. It should allow him to dance around the .300 mark throughout his career.”
“I love the combination of power production and a very low strikeout rate, just 53 whiffs in 517 at-bats. I also like his defense at third base, where he combines steadily-improving reliability with a strong arm and decent range. Scouts love his bat as much as the numbers do. Only negative is lack of speed, but he has All-Star potential.”
The reviews of Arenado are pretty high, and most rate him as a potential all-star caliber third baseman.
Here are his career numbers in the minor leagues:
Assumming his development continues along the same course, it’s safe to predict some pretty impressive seasons in our best-case scenario of Arenado’s career. Given that a 140 game average of his professional career thus far gives us .302/44/27/41/61.5 (BA/2B/HR/BB/K), hitting .300 with at least 35 doubles, 25 home runs and less than 85 strikeouts, seems like a high-end and impressive, but not unreachable, prime.
In the expansion era (since 1961), only right-handed hitting third baseman has had more than one season like that – Aramis Ramirez.
At first that didn’t seem like a very high ceiling for our highest level comp, but then I looked closer at Ramirez’s career.
Did you realize that, in his 11 seasons as a regular player, Ramirez has averaged .289/.347/.513, with 32 doubles and 28 homers a season? Over an 11 year span?
I’ll admit that I didn’t. Would you take that Rockies fans?
You should. A closer look at Ramirez makes even more sense. He’s not a perennial all-star, but he has made the team twice. He’s never been close to winning an MVP, but he’s received votes four times. He’s hit .300 six times and only struck out 100 times in a season once, when he was 23 and in his first season as a regular. He doesn’t walk a ton, but enough that pitchers don’t exploit his aggressiveness.
The only difference I can find is that Ramirez has had seasons of 34, 36, and 38 home runs, which begins to test even the most optimistic projections of Arenado’s power, but hey, it’s Coors Field, so you never know.
The more I look at this, the more I love Ramirez as a best-case scenario for Arenado’s career.
Ramirez serves as a best-case scenario in two ways, both in yearly production and longevity. With these predictions, I try not to get into longevity too much, simply because there are too many variables that can’t be predicted (injuries, aging, etc.).
But as we get into our more realistic comparisons, let’s take a look at the possible pit-falls for Arenado’s career.
Scouts believe more power will come, but there’s no guarantee that it will and we haven’t seen it yet. Earlier, Marc Hulet from FanGraphs said that he believed Arenado’s 20 home runs in the California League were legitimate, and not inflated by the league’s hitter-friendly ballparks, but the sheer numbers are still somewhat commonplace in that league. What if Arenado never hits more than 30 homers in a season?
Well, he could still be quite a productive player.
For a realistic high-end comparison, we’ll look for right-handed hitting third baseman in the expansion era who had seasons where they hit between .280 and .310, and hit between 20-30 home runs, while striking out in less than 10 percent of their at-bats.
Five players fit our criteria, and they’ve each done it once:
I’ll admit, I don’t know squat about Frank Malzone and Eric Soderholm, but they were both shorter than six feet tall, so they’re not good comps for Arenado. Toby Harrah is a decent comp, but he walked a ton, which it doesn’t appear Arenado will do, so we can do better than that.
Joe Crede is heading in the right direction, but he wasn’t quite the all-around hitter we expect Arenado to be at this point, and injuries prevented us from ever figuring out exactly what kind of player he could have been.
Mike Lowell, however, is exactly the player I was searching for. He’s taller than Arenado is, but I love the results on the field. In the eight year span from 2000 to 2007, Lowell averaged .282/.346/.472 with 39 doubles and 22 home runs, while walking 54 times per year and striking out 74 times. Sound familiar?
Just for fun, let’s show Arenado’s numbers 2011 numbers again:
I think Lowell is our man.
Thus far, both of our comparisons paint a good picture of Arenado’s future. But in reality, despite his ability to put the bat on the ball, a power hitter of any sort in the majors with the ability to strike out less in than 10 percent of his plate appearances is a rarity.
But there are plenty of good hitters who strike out in the 15 percent range, and there’s a chance Arenado could end up in that range once he has to face more advanced pitching. Remember, he still hasn’t faced the better breaking balls and pitchers who know how to set up hitters.
So this time, for our realistic low-end comparison, we’re going to assume that Arenado strikes out more against major league pitching, and as a result of making less contact, his power numbers go down a little, as does his batting average. So let’s look for right-handed third baseman who had seasons hitting between .275-.300, with less than 25 homers but at least 30 doubles, and who struck out in less than 15 percent of their at-bats, instead of 10 percent like our last search.
This is the group that had more than one season that fit our criteria.
I don’t like Randa as a comp, because he never hit more than 20 home runs in a season, and realistically, even if Arenado doesn’t pan out the way we think, he should cross the 20-homer plateau at least once at some point in his career. Buddy Bell did it only once, and his prime was a number of years in the low-to-mid teens. He’s out too.
Enos Cabell hit double-digit home runs only once. That’s not enough power.
Lowell we’ve used, and Brooks Robinson is a decent comp, but the one I like the most is Tim Wallach.
Wallach’s 9-year prime, from 1982-1990, gives us a yearly average of .268/.323/.439 with 33 doubles and 20 homers, 44 walks and 86 strike outs per season. If Arenado loses some of his plate discipline and contact abilities when he gets to the majors, this will be the result.
What we have to remember here is that Arenado still has quite some time before he gets to the majors. There is a lot of development that still needs to take place, and may not.
So for our worst-case scenario, we will assume that most of that development does not go as Rockies fans hope it will. Perhaps Arenado’s hit tool doesn’t fully develop. If so, his impressive contact numbers will go downhill quickly. As a result, his power will drop off respectively.
So for our worst-case scenario, we will look for seasons where right-handed hitting third basemen hit between .250-.275, less than 20 home runs and less than 30 doubles, while striking out less than 20 percent of the time. Here are the players who had three or more seasons that fit our criteria:
The one I like here the most is David Bell, which is likely not what Rockies fans want to here, but remember, this is if everything goes wrong from here on out with Arenado.
Bell’s five-year average from 1998-2002 of .262/.321/.417 with 28 doubles and 15 homers is what would happen if Arenado’s hitting ability doesn’t develop as expected. Bell was a player that was just good enough to get starting work for a 5-10 year period, but never be an all-star player. He only hit above .270 twice in his career and didn’t walk enough or hit for enough power to make up for it. In his best season, in 2004 with the Phillies, he posted an .821 OPS, his only time breaking the .800 mark.
Even in the worst-case scenario, Arenado is talented enough, and has enough of a track record, that we can expect him to make it to the majors and stick there for a decent career.
If it all goes well, the Rockies could be looking at a Aramis Ramirez-type career, which would be a constant contributor to the middle of their lineup for a decade. Arenado has a lot of development to do between now and that point, but he does have those abilities and is heading that direction. If he falls a little short of that goal, he should end up somewhere between Mike Lowell and Tim Wallach, which would give the Rockies a dependable player who, in the seasons he puts it all together has all-star potential, and the rest of the time is still a above-average big league regular. If he falls way short, he could have a David Bell-type career in which he starts for a few years as an average to below-average regular, but still a big league starter.