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What has gone wrong for Nolan Arenado this season?

St. Louis Cardinals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

After finishing third in the NL MVP voting last season, big things were expected from St. Louis Cardinals third basemen Nolan Arenado again this season. Unfortunately, though, Arenado has come out of the gates ice cold this season with a triple slash line of .239/.281/.319 through his first 113 at bats on the season. On top of those paltry numbers, after having back-to-back 30+ home run seasons, the 10-time Gold Glove winner has just 2 home runs thus far. Personally, the first thing I think when I see a player of Arenado’s caliber struggling is that he must be unlucky, I’m sure the analytics show us that and before we know it, he will be dominating again. Well, that is not the case for him as the analytics are just as, if not more, concerning than his base line numbers.

Quality of contact

Unlike some of the league’s top tier hitters, Arenado has never been a tear the cover off of the baseball kind of player with his exit velocity numbers. In the prior three seasons, his average exit velo has ranged from 87.8 MPH to 89 MPH. This year though we have seen that number dip down to 86 MPH. For reference, Whit Merrifield, who has always been one of the softest quality of contact players in the league, is currently sitting at just 85.6 MPH and was at 87.1 MPH last season. Not a good look for Arenado. The next thing to check after the average exit velocity is the launch angle. If a hitter is working the ball into the air at their career rate, then eventually you have to trust that things will get back to normal for them. Once again though, this is not the case for Arenado. His launch angle this season is 14.8 degrees, the lowest mark in his career. Last season it sat at 21.7 degrees and the year prior it was 20 degrees. The sudden drop off is largely due to his ground ball rate skyrocketing. Prior to this season he had back-to-back years with sub 32 percent ground ball rates and just one year with a rate above 40 percent which was all the way back in 2018. This year it is at 43.2 percent, a number that is far, far too high for a hitter like Arenado. Additionally, he is still popping the ball up at a well above average rate at 10.2 percent, so what has largely fallen victim to this change is his fly ball percentage which has gone from 29 to 22.7 percent.

Swing profile

Alright even though Arenado’s quality of contact numbers are not there, he has always been a guy who has controlled the strike zone well and made steady contact. Has that been the case this season? The short answer is no, it has not. The numbers on Arenado’s plate discipline are honestly a cause for major concern for me because of how stark the difference is from prior years for him. To begin, Arenado struck out just 72 times last year; this year, he is already at 26, with a strikeout rate of 21.5 percent which nearly doubled last year’s tally of 11.6 percent. It is not like he is drawing excess walks either as his walk rate of 5.8 percent is down 2.6 percent from last season.

Nolan Arenado’s plate discipline

Arenado's stats 2023 2022 2021
Arenado's stats 2023 2022 2021
Whiff rate 23.80% 19.10% 18.50%
Chase rate 40.30% 32.60% 29%
Chase contact 62.60% 68.10% 65.40%
1st pitch swing rate 34.20% 27.10% 27.10%

That chart is the main reason for his struggles and honestly, I am not too sure if he is going to turn it around this season. Traditionally, a significant increase in strikeout rate, chase rate, whiff rate with a drop-in chase contact rate and walk percentage do not magically turn around over the course of season. If anything, that is an indicator to be that Arenado’s overall ability is slipping. Now obviously, Arenado has enough of a history as a player that you can almost look past his early season struggles, anticipating him to right the ship at some point. But if these numbers continue into his 200th at bat and deeper of the season, rather than seeing a red flag, we should be seeing a white flag instead. The Cardinals have zero shot at going anywhere if Arenado’s plate discipline and quality of contact numbers continue at this rate.

Overall thoughts

Honestly, I wish I had a better answer than this, but I really have zero idea as to why Arenado has struggled so mightily in all of these departments this season. If it was just one or two categories that he was struggling in, ok that is fine then, it's a small sample size this early in the season, there is always going to be a weird looking number. However, when all of his stats are this far out of whack it is alarming and an indicator that this might the player Arenado is this year as terrible as that may sound.