How St. Louis Cardinal star Nolan Arenado found the baseball fountain of youth

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TWO DAYS AFTER his 2021 season ended, Nolan Arenado found himself standing on a driving range, shirtless, with stickers attached to his torso and a bat in his hands. The St. Louis Cardinals‘ otherworldly third baseman was in Oceanside, California, at the Titleist Performance Institute, taking batting practice on a field more often littered with golf balls than baseballs. He was ready to embark on the most important winter of his life, one in which he chased around the country the one thing that for so long never was in doubt: his greatness.

Arenado’s baseball walkabout started after a season that registered as a great success by traditional measures. He hit 34 home runs, drove in 105 runs, won his ninth consecutive Gold Glove and made his sixth All-Star team. And yet far too many times for his liking, Arenado found himself in positions of discomfort and uncertainty, the excellence that defined him fleeting.

“It was brutal,” Arenado said. “I’d have a good game. The next day, I just couldn’t feel it again. Like, dude, what just happened? That’s baseball. That’s gonna happen. But it was way too quick. Listen, I’m not the greatest hitter in the game. But I know when I feel right. And it just wouldn’t last long.”

Thus began the journey that has taken him here: hitting .311/.370/.582 with seven home runs and 27 RBIs in 32 games. A month into the 2022 season, Arenado is again one of the best players in Major League Baseball. He is, as the Cardinals ready to host the San Francisco Giants on Sunday Night Baseball, fourth in MLB in wins above replacement and looking far more like the superstar Rockie from the late 2010s than the player he was last year in his first season with St. Louis.

The numbers reflect a winter that was productive, illuminating, invigorating and challenging, too. It took a few extra road trips, thousands of extra reps and learning an ancient martial art — but with Arenado out to fix something few others even considered broken, it was all worth it.

“He has an insatiable appetite not to be the best but to be the best version of himself,” said Scott Fricke, Arenado’s longtime strength coach. “He’s driven by a desire to be great. Not that he needs people to fall at his feet or project he’s a Hall of Famer. He just knows he has very high expectations for himself, and when something’s a little bit off, there needs to be a peeling back, a commitment to finding what he needs. He’s going to grab every color on this paintbrush, and he’s going to find the most beautiful one.”

Recapturing at 31 who he was at 26 took time and energy and focus. It demanded a dedicated group of experts who earned trust that Arenado disseminates only with great caution. More than anything, it forced Arenado to ask himself questions athletes far too often avoid because the answers are scary. Is the magic gone? Where did it go? And how can he once again summon it?

For Arenado, it all started Oct. 9, two days after he went 0 for 4, and a Los Angeles Dodgers walk-off home run squelched his latest crack at winning a World Series. He had no time to waste. So he took his shirt off. He affixed the stickers to his body. He readied for a motion-capture system to collect tens of thousands of data points on what was right and wrong about his swing. And he started to find himself.

WHEN HE STARTED to map out the winter in which he would remake himself, Nolan Arenado focused on two primary outcomes: hitting the ball harder and improving his defensive range to the left. These were simple, actionable goals. He just needed to figure out how to achieve them.

To do so, he first needed to determine if the thing inhibiting him was his body or his skill set. In years past, finding the solution would have been almost an impossibility; now, modern technology has revolutionized sports performance, and athletes are no longer forced to guess. They can learn — and act.

No sport embodies the sports-science revolution like golf. The sport’s equipment manufacturers are incentivized to help build better golfers, and often that technology happens to translate to other sports. Which is how Arenado ended up at TPI, the sports-performance Valhalla that every year welcomes hundreds of elite athletes in search of knowledge about themselves.

There, he met with Nikki Huffman, the former Toronto Blue Jays athletic trainer and now one of Arenado’s strength-and-conditioning coaches, and Dr. Greg Rose, who helped start TPI. Arenado went through a battery of tests beyond the mo-cap swings. Mobility, stability, range of motion, ability to control motion. Strength and power tests on his upper and lower halves. All vital to diagnose what ailed his performance over the previous two seasons, when he lost 40 points of batting average and on-base percentage and 65 points of slugging percentage off his prior career averages.

There was, it turned out, a good reason that Arenado felt as though he was moving through quicksand and that he no longer could catch up to fastballs: His hip mobility had almost vanished. The average baseball player has about 50 degrees of hip internal rotation. Testing revealed Arenado’s range of motion at 10 degrees. Baseball is a sport of rotation, and Arenado’s ability to do so explosively had become reliant on his upper half and baseball instincts.

Hip issues often plague baseball players, particularly infielders. Alex Rodriguez, Mookie Betts, Matt Chapman and Arenado’s close friend Troy Tulowitzki — all have suffered hip ailments that severely limited their abilities.

This was a body problem, not a skill problem, and Huffman understands the body as well as anyone. Her assessment was frank: All of the hard work Arenado typically reserves for his swing he now needed to apply to his hips. Fix the hips, and he’d find the bat speed that leads to greater exit velocities. Fix the hips and those balls to his left no longer would elude him.

“She honestly exposed my flaws,” Arenado said. “Basically said, if you don’t fix this you’re gonna be in trouble. It’s gonna hurt, it’s not gonna feel good and it’s gonna wear your body down and get you hurt.”

Huffman and Fricke worked in concert to prescribe a slew of solutions. Stretching is key for mobility issues, but it’s not enough. Arenado would also need strength and stability, which they could achieve through single-leg exercises: hanging, squats, step-ups, Romanian deadlifts. To move fast on the field, Arenado would need to move slowly in the gym, holding poses that challenged his body and the mind he’d trained to plow through obstacles.

Cognizant that the same exercises performed day after day could get old quickly, Huffman proposed another sort of training. Muay Thai is a style of kickboxing that demands a stable hip, core and foot to throw powerful kicks. When Arenado first started, he struggled to land five consecutive kicks without stumbling. He kept at it, logging countless hours in the Orange County warehouse Arenado bought in 2017 and turned into a training facility. Soon, Arenado was ripping off 50 high kicks without trouble.

The stretching, the strength-and-stability training, the kicks, the trigger-point dry-needling to stimulate his muscles — they were working. Just how much soon became apparent: Upon retesting, Arenado’s hip mobility increased to between 40 and 50 degrees.

The results were beyond gratifying — of Arenado’s hard work, and of his quest to make himself a better player. They also were perfectly aligned with a perspective espoused by his manager, Oliver Marmol: Be honest and curious about what you can be.

“I’ve never had to motivate a great player,” Marmol said. “They have something inside of them. That’s much more than any word that can come out of my mouth, and they hold themselves accountable. Can a guy get away with what he was doing and be just fine? The answer is yes. But [he’s] not satisfied. Is there another way to solve this problem? Can I be better?”

MERELY ADDRESSING HIS hip deficiencies wasn’t enough for Arenado. He wanted to expose himself to anything that might help, whether it was batting sessions with Albert Pujols at the warehouse or working on hand position with his brother, Jonah, who knows Arenado’s swing better than anyone, or discussing hitting with gurus who study the swing for a living.

His St. Louis teammate Paul Goldschmidt had another idea. Goldschmidt knew what Arenado had been going through — on a plane ride during the 2021 season, the two had been in the middle of a long conversation when Arenado admitted something he’d tell only those closest to him. “I just can’t feel certain things,” he said.

Most of all, Arenado was missing his ability to punish fastballs. From 2015 to ’19, he feasted on them, hitting .321, slugging .646 and mashing 118 of his 199 home runs off heaters. In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, his batting average dropped to .287 and his slugging percentage to .521. Last year, it cratered: a .221 average, a .440 slug and a feeling that perhaps age was taking its pound of flesh earlier than he ever expected.

Goldschmidt commiserated. He knew better than anyone what Arenado was enduring. They’d traversed almost identical paths. Both arrived in the National League West Division, Goldschmidt a first baseman with Arizona and Arenado at third in Colorado. Both were traded to the Cardinals, Goldschmidt before the 2019 season and Arenado prior to 2021. Both bore the expectations of nine-figure contracts, Goldschmidt a $130 million extension in St. Louis and Arenado a $260 million megadeal with the Rockies. And like Arenado, Goldschmidt didn’t play to his exacting standards in his first season with St. Louis.

“You haven’t lost it,” Goldschmidt said. “You’ve just got to get it back.”

His plan went beyond the swing — focusing on the implement being swung.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the company that provides bats for nearly half the major leagues is taking a concept widely used in golf and applying it to baseball. In December, Arenado and Goldschmidt flew to Marucci’s Baseball Performance Lab for a bat-fitting — a custom-tailored process that creates a bespoke tool to optimize speed, which should juice exit velocity.

When Arenado, Goldschmidt and their former Cardinals teammate Matt Carpenter entered the lab, employees measured the length of their upper and lower arms and width of their hands. They tested grip strength and “horsepower” — how much strength they generate in their lower body, core and upper body. Then came another round of mo-cap swing testing, with a dozen sensors logging 30,000 data points per second, including vital evaluations of their wrists and the bat, lab director of performance Micah Gibbs said, to understand “how the player and bat are interacting with each other.”

They cycled through a variety of bats with different shapes and sizes. Some had thicker handles and were cupped at the top to change the balance point. Others included a flourish popular in Japan and Korea but novel in MLB: a hockey-puck-looking embellishment on the bottom known as a counterweight knob. Odd to the eye, longer and heavier than what they typically swung, the counterweight bats felt right to Arenado and Goldschmidt. Even better: The ones with the unfamiliar knob yielded the best bat speeds.

Traditionalism, of course, never has been Arenado’s jam. In the batter’s box, where steadiness is gospel, Arenado wiggles and twitches — and his numbers validate his approach. So he was happy to trust the lab’s data and the science behind it. While the counterweight bats were an inch longer and 2 ounces heavier than the 34-inch, 31-ounce piece he swore by, it felt lighter because the distribution of weight fit his swing.

This is baseball in 2022. The limits of performance are only as small as one’s imagination. If a player wants a custom-crafted bat lathed to the ounce — Arenado settled on a 35-inch, 33.1-ounce model — all he needs to do is hop on a plane and spend a day in a lab. Then he’ll be ready to take it anywhere. Even more than 3,000 miles away.

WITH ALL OF this work meant to recapture his early-career success, Arenado found himself remembering what he used to remind himself when training got tough: “I want to be scary.”

Arenado was a second-round draft pick in 2009 out of Lake Forest, California, where he played shortstop. The Rockies converted him to a third baseman, hopeful his glove might someday come close to matching his bat. He asked coaches to intentionally hit fungos, so he could practice his patented across-the-diamond-falling-away throw. “He’s the only person I know who is in cleats in January taking ground balls,” Huffman said: “30 slow-rollers down the line.” If scariness is within reach, Arenado will work for it.

That ethos meant that the third stop on his journey was Kent, Washington. His Cardinals teammate Lars Nootbaar had introduced him to John Soteropulos, a hitting coach at Driveline Baseball, the training facility and baseball think tank that has become a regular stop on big leaguers’ offseason training circuit. Arenado had his range of motion back. He had his bat fine-tuned. In February, when he arrived in Kent, it was time to see if his offseason plan succeeded.

Working with a player the caliber of Arenado is a trainer’s dream. When Soteropulos started a deep dive on Arenado’s career metrics, he was blown away. This was no Coors Field creation. “His profile is awesome because he’s a max-volume player,” Soteropulos said. “He’s a metronome of performance.” At the same time, Soteropulos identified flaws that were a symptom of Arenado’s deficiencies in 2020 and 2021. His contact rate on pitches in the strike zone was up. Consequently his strikeout rate went down. But the quality of contact suffered. He was a power hitter who wasn’t hitting the ball like one. Rather than drive his rear leg into the ground and allow hip movement to create the speed that whips his bat through the zone, Arenado was allowing his hands to travel forward during his stride, slowing the ferocity of his swing.

“I was not in the position to hit the ball hard,” Arenado said. “I was in the position just to put the ball in play. That’s what it felt like.”

Another round of mo-cap testing showed Arenado was finally returning to his swing of old. His swing, Soteropulos said, is unique because the flexion of his front arm allows him to turn on inside pitches at an elite level without losing the ability to reach the outside corner. His pull-side power is among the best in the game because Arenado created a movement solution that allowed him to excel. If they could pair that innate movement with improved bat speed, it could unleash the Arenado of a half-decade earlier.

Soteropulos’ solution was two-pronged. The first was philosophical, a marriage of mental with physical: swing with more intent. The popularity of intent-based training has grown exponentially in baseball circles over the last decade, and it’s quite straightforward: Approach every swing or pitch with a specific focus and maximum effort. Or, in Arenado-speak: Be scary. The second element prompted Arenado to grab three colors from his paintbrush.

The first was a bat with a green cap, 34 inches in length, 37.2 ounces in heft, loaded toward the barrel end. The second was red-capped, the same size except with the weight in the handle. And the third was blue, 34 inches long but only 24.8 ounces heavy, 20% lighter than the standard. The overload-underload training Driveline popularized for pitchers is now part of its program for batters who want to hit the ball harder, and for two days, Arenado took swings with all three bats, as well as his Marucci counterweight-knob custom piece.

Blast Motion sensors were affixed to all three to track bat speed. After every swing, Arenado could see how fast his bat was moving. If the swing felt right and the speed was good, he could bank it mentally as the sort of swing he wanted to repeat. If the feeling or speed were off, he could ditch it. The feedback loop grew tighter, allowing Arenado to grow more comfortable with his best swing.

By Driveline’s estimation, 1 mph gained in bat speed equals about 1.2 mph more in exit velocity. That 1.2 mph in exit velocity yields about 7 feet of distance on balls hit at a launch angle between 25 and 35 degrees, the ideal loft for home runs. Driveline reverse-engineered leaguewide exit velocities to determine the average bat speed in MLB is an estimated 71.3 mph. Last season, according to Driveline, Arenado’s bat speed fluctuated between 70.2 and 70.8 mph.

This year, it’s 72.7 mph — not at the 80-mph level of the fastest bats in baseball, like Shohei Ohtani and Giancarlo Stanton, but plenty scary — especially to pitchers who are beginning to understand that the Arenado of old is back.

IN 59 plate appearances that have ended on fastballs this season, Nolan Arenado is batting .404 and slugging .865. Nobody in baseball has hit fastballs better.

“All of Nolan’s days are not by accident,” Huffman said. “He’s the reason this happens.” Said Fricke: “We don’t need to train him on how to be great. We need to help him remove the clutter that allows him to be Nolan.”

Age isn’t here to steal anything, not yet, not as long as Arenado surrounds himself with the sorts of people who helped figure out what he couldn’t by himself. He corresponds with Huffman and Fricke daily, receives texts from Jonah that contain assessments only a brother with the keenest eye could glean, gets fresh batches of bats from Marucci and corresponds with Driveline to ensure he’s approaching every at-bat with the most intent he can muster.

Everything is finally falling into place. His locker and his house and the pitchers he’s seeing more regularly are now familiar. The fallout from his ugly divorce with the Rockies fades further with every big hit, every play made to his left — which has improved likewise, with his two outs above average thus far tied to tops among third basemen.

“You see guys get traded, and sometimes they want to prove that they were worth it,” Goldschmidt said. “I’ve seen guys fall in that trap.”

Arenado escaped from his morass. The Cardinals are a playoff-caliber team, particularly if a few of his teammates start hitting more like him. Their pitching is enough, and their gloves more than enough, to buoy them in an NL Central shaping up to be a two-team race with St. Louis and Milwaukee. As sanguine as Arenado is about the future — even with an MVP-caliber season, he’s not inclined to opt out of the final five years and $144 million of his contract as he could do after the 2022 season — he’s trying to live in the present, to embrace the now, to reciprocate the embrace St. Louis gave him upon his arrival.

“I don’t know how I’m gonna perform this year,” Arenado said. “It’s early. But I know from a physical, how-I-feel-right-now standpoint, it’s like I did when I was 28. Which is a good feeling. I know the way baseball talks about guys in their 30s, like they’re some old player. I’m not old. Yeah, I played a little bit. But I don’t feel old. I still felt like, this can’t be it. It can’t be gone. This isn’t where I’m headed.

“I don’t know how much better of a baseball player I am. But I know I couldn’t feel physically better than what I’m feeling right now.”

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