THE REDBIRD REVIEW

Nolan Arenado released some steam after Monday’s 3-1 loss to the Reds in Cincinnati. Venting can be good for the soul, but I don’t know if it can enliven a hitter’s slugging percentage. We’ll see.

I’m sure you’ve read the quotes, but here’s a sampling courtesy of John Denton of MLB.com and Lynn Worthy of STLtoday.

“It’s bad. The swing is not good, my swing is not good,” Arenado told reporters. “I’ve been working on it and trying to figure this thing out, but my swing is not good.

“I’m a guy that pulls the ball in the air and I haven’t done that all year. I don’t know what the answers are. I’ve got to continue to try to find it. I can see the difference of when I was good and when I’m not, but trying to apply it in games right now is really hard for me.”

I respect Arenado’s candor. It’s been a jarring season for him in several ways. Through Monday he was batting .258 with a .309 onbase percentage and .354 slugging percentage. That .354 slug and his .662 OPS would be the worst of his career. His below-average 91 OPS+ would be his lowest in a full season. And though Statcast gives Arenado an above-average rating for his defense at third base, Sports Info Solutions has him at minus 5 in defensive runs saved. That puts him near the bottom of the pile among big-league third basemen.

In Monday’s 3-1 setback, Arenado made a costly error in the second inning and the Reds went on to score two runs to take the lead and keep it. Arenado went 0 for 4 at the plate and is 3 for 24 (.125) in his last six games.

After posting slightly above-average offensive numbers during the first month of the season, Arenado, per wRC+, is 20 percent below the league average offensively in May. And he has only three home runs to his name in 2024.

As for his all-around game, Arenado had a career-low 2.4 bWAR in 2023 (that’s the Baseball Reference version.) So far this season he’s below the replacement level with minus 0.1 Wins Above Replacement. And I can’t believe that I just typed that sentence. Here’s another stunner: Cards center fielder Michael Siani (+0.3 WAR) has provided more all-purpose value than Arenado during the first two months of the season.

Let’s focus on the hitting.

There are three obvious issues.

And they’re all related. Pardon my batch of numbers but it’s the only way to give you an accurate breakdown of what’s happening with Arenado in this, his age 33 season.

1. Arenado is getting dominated by four-seam fastballs batting .211 with a poor slugging percentage. This is something new and different.

Here is Arenado’s yearly slugging percentage as a Cardinal when connecting on four-seam fastballs:

.457 in 2021
.595 in 2022
.669 in 2023
.263 in 2024

Arenado batted .320 against four-seamers in 2022, and followed up with a .283 average against the pitch last season. As noted, his batting average on four seamers has dropped significantly (again) in 2024.

Moreover, Arenado’s hard-hit rate on four-seam fastballs this year is 26 percent; it wasn’t lower than 40 percent in each of his first three seasons with St. Louis.

This isn’t just a matter of low-impact contact, either. Arenado has a 20 percent swing and whiff rate against four-seam fastballs this season. Until this year, his highest swing-whiff rate on the four-seam as a Cardinal was 14 percent.

Arenado’s strikeout rate against four-seam fastballs is 25.4 percent. That’s revealing; in his first three seasons with the Cardinals Arenado’s strikeout rate against the pitch was 14 percent in 2021, then 7.6% in 2022, then 14% in 2023. The punch-out problem is a lot worse in 2024.

Statcast gives each hitter a “run value” for their performance against every type of pitch. As a hitter, you want to have a number that features a plus.

Here’s the yearly run-value grade for Arenado on four-seam fastballs during his time with the Cardinals. This simple snap shot that tells us a lot about the serious nature of his struggles against the four-seam:

2021: +4
2022: +14
2023: +11
2024: minus 6

2. Arenado isn’t hitting the ball with authority. Opposing pitchers have fed him more four-seam fastballs this season. Last year he saw a four-seam fastball on 25 percent of the pitches thrown to him. This year that rate is 30 percent. Pitchers know what’s going on, and they’ll keep using the pitch. Arenado’s overall quality of contact is deteriorating.

Arenado’s yearly hard-hit rate as a Cardinal:

37.5% in 2021
39% in 2022
38% in 2023
29% in 2024

That 29 percent hard-hit rate ranks 235th among 291 qualifying MLB hitters this season. And after barreling pitches at an average rate of 7.4 percent in his first three seasons for St. Louis, Arenado has barreled pitches at a skimpy 1.8% rate in 2024.

Arenado has never generated a huge hard-hit rate during his career – so how did he trigger so many home runs? Well, Arenado was able to compensate by turning on pitches – even those four-seam fastballs – and launching them for pull-side home runs.

That isn’t happening this year.

3. Arenado’s pull-side power has diminished. He doesn’t have the same frequency of successful lift-offs. From 2021 through 2023, Arenado clubbed 87 of his total 90 home runs on pulled balls through the air. There were 80 homers on fly balls pulled to left, and seven homers on line-drive shots to left.

This season Arenado has two pulled home runs on fly balls to left and has one homer on a fly ball to center.

Arenado has never hit an opposite-field home run during his three-plus seasons as a Cardinal. And he’s smacked just four homers to center.

So even though Arenado’s most prodigious power is muscled on pulled fly balls, the breakdown for 2024 is illuminating:

24 fly balls hit to center
21 fly balls hit to the opposite field
16 fly balls to left field, his pull side.

That’s an easy one to understand; Arenado can’t turn on his pull-side machine that’s been so effective for him in cranking 328 big-league homers. Because if he could hit more homers with his preferred and most productive method, he’d be doing it. Instead, he’s hitting more fly balls to zones where he’s had much lower success in the power-ball game.

Here’s another way to put another light on the problem to make it clearer.

Arenado’s annual percentage of pulled fly balls as a Cardinal:

42.4% in 2021
38% in 2022
37.5% in 2023
26% in 2024

Arenado isn’t getting around on fastballs, and that makes it difficult for him to pull balls through the sky for his favorite (and easiest) home-run flight. This is an ominous development for a hitter who produced 96.7 percent of his home runs on pull shots during his first three seasons with the Cardinals.

Before Tuesday’s game, Marmol reaffirmed his confidence in Arenado when discussing the situation with Denton, Worthy and other media.

“Nado is one of the best players in the big leagues,” Marmol said. “He’s one of the most feared in that box and by the time this [slump] is done, it will be no different. I trust him a ton and he’s going to come out of this and prove a lot of people wrong. It’s his competitive track record; not just what’s on the back of his baseball card. When you’re a competitor and you care as much as he does, you find ways out of these type situations and I’m betting on Nolan doing exactly that.”

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. Friday. Stream live or access the podcast on 590thefan.com or the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb

For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.

Stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions, Spotrac and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.