As you’ve surely heard, the Cardinals made one of the most impactful deals of the off-season a few weeks ago when they acquired third baseman Nolan Arenado from the Rockies. The move is clearly a good trade for the Cardinals, as they acquired one of the league’s top players without subtracting significantly from either their Major League roster or the top of their prospect list. They somehow did so without adding to their payroll for 2021. Nothing that happens in 2021 will make that a bad deal. Having said that, there are some concerns about Arenado. After a tremendous first seven years to his career, he struggled mightily in 2020. His shoulder injury clearly, uh... shoulders... part of the blame, as does the odd shortened season. What happens when superstar players find a single season of kryptonite? Perhaps finding some comps for Arenado might give us an idea of what happens after seasons like his 2020.
Let’s establish some parameters. Through Arenado’s age 28 season in 2019, he had accumulated 31.4 career fWAR. We want players between 26.7 and 36.1 career fWAR- or 15%, plus or minus Arenado’s total- through age 27, 28, or 29. We also want players with some defensive skill. Having Arenado’s defensive ability gives him a higher floor for overall value and we want comps that match. Arenado’s DEF (Defensive Runs Above Average) was 37.9 through age 28. In this case, we’ll be a little more lenient on the defensive value. I tried a +/- of 35%, but even that was too limiting. Instead, we’ll look for players with a career DEF value at least 35% below Arenado’s, with no cap on the high end. In practical terms, that’s 24.6 defensive runs above average or better. We’ll go back to 1975 for our pool.
Now is when we add in what makes Arenado unique. Namely, we want to find players who match the other criteria (very good career fWAR and defensive value through ages 27-29), then significantly declined in their next season. In Arenado’s case, his wRC+ dropped all the way from 129 at age 28 to 76 at 29. It was an odd, pandemic-riddled season, which robbed Arenado of extra games where he likely would have closed that gap. Plus, using a 53 point drop in wRC+ as our fulcrum is going to elminate too many players. Instead, we’ll look for players whose wRC+ fell by 20 points or more. That gets us down to 13 players. However, four of those- Joe Mauer in 2011, Brian McCann in 2012, Jonathan Lucroy in 2015, and Mike Piazza in 1998- were catchers. Given the wildly different constraints of the position, we can toss those out. Here’s our list of nine comps. Note that the age listed is the age during their collapse year.
Nolan Arenado Comps
|Collapse Yr.||Player||Age||Career WAR||Career DEF||wRC+ Decline|
|Collapse Yr.||Player||Age||Career WAR||Career DEF||wRC+ Decline|
Several struggled with injuries and diminished playing time in their collapse season like Areando in 2020. Technically, Troy Tulowitzki didn’t miss more time in his collapse year than he did the year prior, but injuries plagued him throughout his career, including the collapse year. That four of these nine happened to have played third base is helpful. Let’s look at the individual cases to see how they rebounded.
At least part of the reason Williams dropped 41 points of wRC+ is because his pre-collapse season was a small sample (318 PA). That allowed him to put up an unsustainable 170 wRC+ on the back of a .351 BABIP, 70 points higher than his career mark. He had nowhere to go but down. His rebound wasn’t much better, though, as he fell another 28 points of wRC+. He also found another gear defensively and managed to stay healthy, which allowed him to amass 4.1 fWAR despite further offensive decline. He had a respectable 10.4 fWAR in the three years after collapse, compared to 14.9 in the three years prior.
Tulo didn’t rebound much from his collapse season at the plate, improving his wRC+ by just 3 points. He did have a solid 3.0 fWAR in the rebound season, compared to 2.4 in the collapse. Tulo only put up 0.1 fWAR for the rest of his career. It’s not fair to compare Arenado- a completely healthy player prior to 2020- to Tulowitzki, whose career was injury-riddled even before the collapse.
If you’re old enough to remember Edgardo Alfonzo’s career, you’re shocked to see him on a list of Arenado comps. But here he is, having toted 28.8 career fWAR into his age 29 season. Alfonzo did get a bit of a dead cat bounce following his collapse, upping his wRC+ from 92 to 99 and his fWAR from 1.3 to 1.4. His career only lasted three more seasons after the collapse, and the last two were well below replacement level (-0.8 and -0.9 fWAR in limited playing time). This would obviously be a bad outcome for Arenado. Fortunately, it isn’t likely given how much better Arenado has been than Alfonzo, raising his floor.
Longoria had a 129 or better wRC+ for each of the first six years of his career. He finally misfired, a 105 wRC+, in 2014. Most of his collapse was due to a loss of thump. His .151 ISO in 2014 was well below his .238 ISO through that point in his career. After his collapse, he showed only marginal improvement (a 109 wRC+) in the next season. That said, he rebounded to a 123 wRC+ and 4.5 fWAR in the second year after the collapse. He had a 10.8 fWAR in the three years post-collapse, compared to 13.8 in the three prior. The three prior seasons contained an injury-shortened 2012.
Though technically satisfying our constraints, Fryman isn’t a great comp. First, his 27.2 career fWAR pre-collapse is scraping the bottom of our range. Second, Fryman’s peak wasn’t as good as Arenado’s. As for his collapse, it was mostly due to injury. Healthy again in 2000, he had the best year of his career with a 4.6 fWAR and his wRC+ surged from 78 in the collapse back up to 126.
Knoblauch was a BABIP victim, with his pre-collapse BABIP (.386 and .370 in the two years prior) falling to .324 in his collapse year. His wRC+ went from 145 to 112. He fell further to a 105 in his rebound year, but surged to 124 in the second year after collapse. His defense evaporated, particularly after developing a nasty case of the yips in 2000. Knoblauch’s collapse being caused by BABIP chicanery and the sudden case of the yips renders him moot as a comp.
Beltran’s collapse was caused by a power outage, with his ISO falling to just better than half of the previous season. He also fought a quadriceps injury and even vertigo for part of the year, yet still accumulated 151 games played. In other words, like Arenado, he played through injury and it crushed his numbers. He recovered in 2006 for the best year of his career by fWAR, other than one special at-bat in mid-October. He was worth 20.1 fWAR over his the three post-collapse years, clearly a great potential outcome for Arenado.
Reyes isn’t a great comp mostly because his “collapse” was merely a return to normal after a BABIP-driven career year in 2011. His .353 BABIP in 2011 sparked him to a 143 wRC+. His career wRC+ through 2010 was 102, and his career BABIP was .309. Through that prism, 2012 wasn’t a collapse at all for Reyes.
Here’s a shocking fact. From 1972 to 1976, Bobby Grich had the third highest fWAR among position players, ahead of several Hall of Famers. Entering 1977, Grich absolutely had a comparable level of production to Arenado entering 2020. Like Arenado, Grich’s collapse season included an injury (a herniated disk in his back). Also like Arenado, Grich’s collapse season had some unusual circumstances. Of course, there wasn’t a pandemic in 1977. For Grich, he was asked to move from second base to shortstop after signing with the Angels as a free agent, a position he hadn’t played in five years. Add it up and Grich comes in as the best comp for Arenado despite playing a different infield position.
As for his rebound, his wRC+ continued to fall for another season, but simply remaining healthy allowed him to boost his fWAR from 1.4 in the collapse year to 3.0 in the rebound. Two years after collapse, he was completely healthy and returned to a reasonable version of what he was in his peak. His next three wRC+s were 141, 122, and 167 in the strike-shortened 1981. His fWARs in those years: 5.6, 4.4, and 5.3 (in the strike year). Not only is Grich the best anecdotal comp for Arenado. He also represents a best case scenario.
Our closest comps are Matt Williams, Evan Longoria, and Bobby Grich, with slight nods to Edgardo Alfonzo and Carlos Beltran. That group had an interesting range of post-collapse outcomes. Beltran and Grich returned completely to form, with Beltran even finding a new level immediately after the collapse. Grich took an extra year. Williams and Longoria never fully recovered and each took a year to stabilize, but eventually returned to solid levels only a tick below their peaks. Alfonzo evaporated into dust. I still like Grich as the most similar given the anecdotal weirdness, similar to Arenado, that led to his poor season. Of course, this is hardly scientific. Even if it’s only a modest rebound, a rebound of some sort is clearly the likely outcome.