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‘The best by far’: Peers laud different dimensions Cardinals’ Nolan Arenado brings to defense

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PHILADELPHIA — As promised, Adrian Beltre popped out of the dugout at Dodger Stadium one day in September and returned to field a question he’d been asked about Nolan Arenado.

For the majority of the visiting Cardinals’ batting practice, the retired infielder ranged from hugging Albert Pujols to laughing with Arenado and if he saw someone else familiar he flashed that quick first step that eventually will take him to Cooperstown as one of the most complete players ever to handle third base. When a reporter brought up Arenado’s defense at that same position, Beltre held up a finger and said he’d be back. Hold on. Almost 30 minutes later he was.

He had a brief break between reunions, so Beltre prepared a brief answer.

“He is the best at everything,” Beltre said. “To be honest, no disrespect to anybody else, he’s the best I’ve seen, the best I’ve seen by far.”

A few days removed from notifying the Cardinals he will not opt out of his contract to become a free agent, remaining with the team through at least 2027 and possibly until a red coat is draped over his shoulders, Arenado could win a 10th Gold Glove Award. St. Louis-based Rawlings will announce its annual “finest in the field” honors Tuesday afternoon, and Arenado is positioned to join another exclusive group with a win. Pittsburgh’s Ke’Bryan Hayes and Colorado’s Ryan McMahon are the other finalists in the National League at third base.

Arenado’s teammates Paul Goldschmidt (first base), Brendan Donovan (utility), and Tommy Edman (second base and utility) are the Cardinals’ other finalists.

A 10th Gold Glove would make Arenado the 17th player with at least that many and only the third to start his major-league career with 10 Gold Gloves in his first 10 seasons, joining Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. Arenado could become the first infielder to win 10 consecutive since Cardinals great Ozzie Smith won 13 at shortstop, and a 10th for Arenado would tie Mike Schmidt for the second-most at third. Arenado would trail only Brooks Robinson, who has the record with 16 consecutive seasons as a Gold Glove winner.

Arenado’s 155 Defensive Runs Saved are the fourth-most at any position from 2002 through 2022, according to FanGraphs.com. At third base, Arenado is second to Beltre’s 200 since the statistic has been tracked, but in that span Arenado has played 8,000 fewer innings.

‘Pinnacle of defense’

As many honors as he’s snagged and hits he’s stolen, Arenado’s gift of grab is clear in how his peers describe him and the style he’s added to the hot corner.

He’s a third baseman’s favorite third baseman.

“I think he’s pretty much the pinnacle of defense,” said Toronto’s Matt Chapman, a high school teammate and three-time Gold Glove winner at third and finalist this year for his fourth. “I mean, he’s in his own league. There is no competition for him. His only competition is himself.”

“I find myself mimicking him, not even consciously,” McMahon said.

“His style? He can make any kind of play — and he makes it look easy,” said Beltre, a five-time Gold Glove winner at third base. “He’s like a shortstop playing third base. We have different third basemen who are decent about doing some things, not great at the other things. A couple have good arms. A couple guys have good range. But he has the whole package. He’s going forward, going back. He’s good to his side. He throws from one knee. Everything he does is super smooth, and it looks like he’s easy.”

Beltre’s description of the dimensions to Arenado’s defense — forward, back, side to side, from a knee — also serves as a list of the drills he does to maintain or improve.

And that starts in the offseason.

As he’s aged, Arenado, 31, has reduced the amount of time he spends each day taking groundballs hours before a game.

“Back in the day,” as he said, he would go through a series of drills that, among other challenges, included fielding groundballs hit in foul territory and making that cross-corner throw on the run. For the first three innings of each game, he still takes warmup grounders from the grass lip of the infield to “remind me to move my feet because it’s such a long throw; don’t get lazy and stuff.” But the intensive and repetitive drills, those are for winter.

As he does in games, he starts back to lengthen the throw and rev-up his feet. He’ll take grounders backhand and forehand and then repeat to work on starting double plays.

He is so aggressive with throwing on the run to second base that when he first had a play in practice like that with the Cardinals, the second baseman was not covering.

They had to adjust what was possible.

Pushing himself

“I’ll have my brother hit balls really far in the hole to see if I can get to it,” Arenado said during the Cardinals’ final trip this year. “If I can’t, who cares? I want to practice thinking I can get it and pushing myself to go for a ball that I probably wouldn’t go for because I would never make it. Go for it. Try. I work on tricking my mind that I can get to any ball.”

And, he was asked, if he only goes one for seven or 0 for seven on those tries?

“I’m OK with that as long as I feel like I’m moving well,” Arenado said. “I see where I end up on the play and I see that’s a lot of range, that’s a big area, and that’s when I’m happy.”

A significant part of Arenado’s defensive prowess in recent seasons is right there, to his left. In the past three seasons he has made 321 plays to his left and that is 31 more than an average third baseman would make with the same opportunities, according to Baseball Info Solution. Hayes is next, at plus-21. One of the unexpected plays to his left is the ball Arenado fielded in Arizona behind the mound — striding one step past where he caught the ball in his barehand so that he already was into his arm-swing and throw when he did. The play was so absurd that Paul Goldschmidt had to hide his grin.

Spend a season asking third basemen and peers about Arenado, and descriptions of plays like that often come up. The Cardinals visited Fenway Park shortly after he fielded a bunt by the mound, jumped Jeter-like, twisted acrobat-like, and threw to third for an improbable out. In the Boston clubhouse, Trevor Story had difficulty describing the play, forget duplicating it.

“No one else is even going to try it let alone make it,” Story said. “That’s just him. He thinks of the game in a different. The best way to describe it is unique. His internal clock is the best I’ve ever seen. He’s got another sense for playing the game that you don’t see all that often. There’s an art to how he plays.”

Younger than Nolan and older than Jonah, Chapman was in a class between the two Arenado boys and shared an infield with both at El Toro High in Lake Forest, Calif. He recalled a few scouts had Nolan throw to second from behind home plate to clock his time as a catcher because they weren’t sure if he could stick at third.

During Toronto’s visit to Busch Stadium in May, Chapman recalled how he thought that was “laughable” because “people who see him every day and know him … his hands are too valuable not be in the infield.”

In good hands

Arenado confident use of his hands to shape how he plays this comes up often in conversation with teammates and peers. Arenado plays one handed — bringing in his throwing hand for the transfer. He said it makes “my hands feel a little softer,” and he had a coach early in his career with Colorado that OK’d it as long as “you pay attention to all the little things.”

Arenado felt it made his control, his transfer, the little things sharper. Fast-forward a few years and a young McMahon is scaling the Rockies’ organization and coach Vinny Castilla pulls him aside with a suggestion: Try one handed.

“I started in Double A, took it from him, and it was one of the best things for me,” McMahon said. “That is definitely his style. What I learned from him is to have conviction.”

That was the tone Beltre had a few weeks ago Dodger Stadium.

He was both brief but convicted, and as he turned to say hello to a longtime umpire walking off the field, Beltre stopped, pivoted and threw one more compliment Arenado’s way.

“If I’m a young third baseman now in the game, whatever he does I follow that — whatever he does,” Beltre said. “Don’t be timid. I think the way he plays he wants to make every play and that’s where to start. What sets him apart is he does make every play.”

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon discuss recent comments made by Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak.

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