Two names came to my mind immediately (for different reasons) when I saw the official report on Friday night that the St. Louis Cardinals had reached an agreement to acquire third baseman Nolan Arenado in a blockbuster trade from the Colorado Rockies: Scott Rolen and Matt Holliday.
From a pure baseball perspective, Rolen and Arenado have some easily-identifiable similarities. While not quite the preeminent slugger that Arenado is, Scott Rolen was also an understated, dirt-on-his-jersey, generational defender and nightly web gem at the hot corner who embodied a “gamer” toughness that endeared himself to the passionate St. Louis fanbase during his time with the team (2002-2007). Rolen overall won eight Gold Gloves, was a seven-time All-Star in his career and was a World Series champion in 2006. He was a beloved Cardinal, and it’s easy to envision Arenado following a similar arc. The highlights below bear a striking resemblance to vintage Arenado in the field.
From more of a fantasy baseball perspective, Matt Holliday came to mind because we’ve seen this movie before. Everyone in the fantasy baseball industry will be crunching numbers in the next few weeks (myself included) while attempting to accurately project how the move away from Coors Field will affect Arenado’s offensive numbers. Well, both Holliday and Arenado have carried the torch as the “face of the franchise” for the Rockies organization at some point or another over the past fifteen seasons. But more than that, both players now have something very specific in common: both were superstar fantasy producers during their time in Colorado playing in the altitude at Coors Field who were both traded to St. Louis in their primes (Holliday had a brief pit stop in Oakland in between). This direct apples-to-apples comparison gives us a unique opportunity to take a closer look at the impact of leaving Coors Field for Busch Stadium from a fantasy impact perspective.
There will be a quick-rush throughout the baseball industry to analyze (and specifically criticize) Arenado’s home vs. road splits throughout his career and use those numbers to predict a significant dropoff in production in The Gateway to the West. And we will surely get to that below because it’s a valuable talking point that carries significant importance in this discussion. We’ll also look briefly at the obvious impact of park factors as well.
But before we dive in too deep, just a quick comment on Arenado. Make no mistake about it: Nolan Arenado is an absolute bonafide superstar. The 29-year-old is an 8-time Gold Glove winner, 5-time All-Star, 4-time Silver Slugger, and an unprecedented 4-time Platinum Glove award winner in the National League. He is unquestionably one of the ten best players in baseball and a trade like this can send shockwaves throughout the league, specifically in the NL Central which has been criticized of late as each of its teams seem more focused on rebuilding and shedding payroll than competing to win. Since 2015, Arenado has been one of the most durable, consistent, and productive hitters in baseball, while simultaneously being arguably the game’s best defender. His arrival in St. Louis cannot be understated for what it means to that city, that team, that division, and the National League where he will team up with a fellow bash-brother in 33-year-old first-baseman Paul Goldschmidt.
Those are video game numbers above. Averaging 40 HR/124 RBI per season is exactly what made Arenado a perennial top-5 pick in fantasy drafts year-after-year. Reports circulated this week suggesting that Arenado was very eager and excited about the possibility of joining the Cardinals, admiring the team’s history, devoted fanbase, and commitment to excellence and winning. The California native has only qualified for the postseason twice in his career with the Rockies, losing a Wild Card game to Arizona in 2017 and then winning a dramatic, extra-inning Wild Card game against the Cubs in 2018 before being swept by the Brewers in the Divisional Round. Arenado wants to play for a contender, and it became clear he was not going to get that opportunity in the Mile High City.
Well here are the splits that we all want to see. They admittedly aren’t pretty. Looking at the stark differences between Arenado’s home vs. road performance up to this point in his career (especially the SLG and OPS) should absolutely give us pause as we project Arenado’s statistical output away from the hitter-friendly paradise that is Coors Field. But keep in mind that hitting on the road presents a challenge to most major leaguers in any venue and has all sorts of variables that factor into it, not simply environment, so simply using Arenado’s road splits as a one-size-fits-all approach is shortsighted. This even more so applies to Coors Field, where for years players have struggled away from home due to the toll that playing in that environment takes on a player’s swing, timing, and approach in the batter’s box.
Furthermore, a quick discussion on park factors, while we’re at it, as we compare Coors Field to Busch Stadium. Now, this one feels glaringly obvious so I won’t go nuts here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention it. When comparing the two venues, Coors Field clearly favors offense, generally rating as one of the most favorable hitting environments in baseball (if not the friendliest), whereas Busch Stadium plays fairly neutral, even leaning pitcher-friendly depending on which resource you prefer. Check out this terrific piece from Dan Richards (@Fantasy_Esquire) here at Pitcher List for a more in-depth view of park factors as well as a comparison of those two ballparks and others. It’s common sense, but yes, the move from Coors Field to Busch Stadium is a legitimate offensive downgrade in the fantasy game.
Matt Holliday and Nolan Arenado are not the same baseball player, and I certainly don’t intend to imply that they are. Every player is unique in their own right with their own particular set of skills. Skills that they acquired over a very long career. Skills that make them a nightmare for pitchers.
But more than simply looking at Arenado’s poor road splits and thinking he’s not as great of a hitter as we remember him being, the chart below gives us a very unique opportunity to compare what type of performance an in-their-prime superstar can produce when playing their home games in Colorado compared to St. Louis, with an impossible-to-ignore sample size that might allow us to draw some basic conclusions. Holliday was an All-Star in Colorado for three straight seasons from 2006-2008 and was also an All-Star for three straight seasons in St. Louis from 2010-2012, as well as later in 2015. Holliday’s 2009 season split between Oakland and St. Louis is excluded for simplicity.
Those 2006-2008 Rockies years for Holliday sure compare quite favorably to Arenado’s 2015-2019 seasons. And while there is no denying that Holliday remained an extremely valuable player in St. Louis, there is also no denying that his production dipped, signifying the dramatic, inarguable impact that Coors Field has on offensive output.
Holliday avg. season in COL (2006-2008): 115 R, 32 HR, 113 RBI, .329 AVG
Holliday avg. season in STL (2010-2014): 92 R, 24 HR, 93 RBI, .295 AVG
Arenado avg. season in COL (2015-2019): 104 R, 40 HR, 124 RBI, .300 AVG
Projected Arenado avg. season in STL (based on 162-game schedule): Something along the lines of 91 R, 32 HR, 104 RBI, .270 AVG feels about right?
This is by no means an exact science here, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a rather simplistic approach to this topic. But it’s worth noting that Holliday experienced approximately a 20% dip in production once he left paradise, and I personally would expect something similar for Arenado as well. As I began writing this article over the weekend, Arenado was boasting an ADP of #17 overall (the #2 third-baseman behind Jose Ramirez) via FantasyPros and within 72 hours, Arenado’s ADP has now dropped all the way to #27 (falling behind Manny Machado and Anthony Rendon as well). We should expect that number to drop a bit more into the thirties in the coming weeks given the anticipated overreaction to this weekend’s hot stove bombshell.
And just for fun, check out Scott Rolen‘s first two full seasons with the Cardinals:
2003: 98 R, 28 HR, 104 RBI, .286 AVG, .528 SLG, .910 OPS
2004: 109 R, 34 HR, 124 RBI, .314 AVG, .598 SLG, 1.007 OPS
Looks eerily reminiscent of that Arenado projection above.
And for that reader, yes you, the one that’s gonna ask me: “Lucas, what about Holliday’s career home vs. road splits during his Rockies years, how does that compare to Arenado? Maybe Holliday didn’t have the exaggerated splits that Arenado did which would make this comparison off base.” Well, I’m glad you asked. Here you are my friend, see for yourself:
Summary: a notably significant disparity, similar to Arenado. Coors Field really is THAT impactful, even for the very best of hitters. This is the exact reason that Todd Helton continues to fight an uphill battle in his quest to be elected to the MLB Hall of Fame, as voters hold the Coors Field effect against him and discredit his performance to some extent.
The 2020 Season
I’ve spent the entirety of this article discussing Arenado’s performance in Colorado without giving any mention to his underwhelming 2020 season. Arenado signed an eight-year, $260 million contract extension in 2019. Then, Arenado struggled mightily in 2020, landing on the injured list for only the second time in his career this past season with a nagging left shoulder injury. An MRI in September revealed a bone bruise and inflammation in the AC joint. Arenado, when right, has a gorgeous, powerful one-handed follow-through with his left arm/shoulder and without it working properly, his numbers cratered. Arenado put up by far the worst numbers of his career in the 48 games that he played, but did not require surgery and appears all systems go for the upcoming season if you trust this video from earlier this month courtesy of Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman (@STRO):
Nolan Arenado's swing 😍
— MLB (@MLB) January 21, 2021
While the shoulder injury zapped his power and significantly impacted his effectiveness as a hitter, I’m willing to bet that a return to full health will get him right back to his pre-2020 levels of production. And he looks pretty darn healthy in that clip above. So for a player who has been incredibly durable throughout his career, I’m simply gonna give him a pass on 2020. He’s earned the benefit of the doubt as far as I’m concerned.
Arenado is no longer worthy of a first-round pick in fantasy drafts, as he has been in years past, given the news of this monumental trade, as there is no getting around the fact that he won’t be putting up MLB The Show numbers anymore. Even that second-round ADP felt a little rich as well, with the expected 20% drop in statistical production that I would anticipate. But a 91-32-104-.270 line from a third-baseman still plays well in fantasy, so I would certainly have no problem drafting Arenado in round three, as he and Goldschmidt look to terrorize the National League together. And if you want to reach for him a tad earlier, I’m not gonna fault you for that.
If others in your league let Arenado slide in your draft due to the Coors Effect, take advantage and draft him confidently. Even with the trade, a hungry, motivated Arenado in one of baseball’s best markets for me remains clearly in that same tier with Manny Machado and Anthony Rendon, right behind Ramirez whose speed sets him apart. After all, both Rolen and Holliday were very valuable fantasy players in their own right during their Cardinals tenures as well. Just keep your expectations in check, as I wouldn’t anticipate any more 40 HR/130 RBI campaigns.
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