San Bernardino, California —— If the last time you checked in on San Francisco Giants prospect Jonah Arenado was back in May, surely you’re as surprised as we are at the sustained, significant surge he enjoyed over the final few months of 2017. Bottoming out at an ugly .197/.265/.262/.527 slash line as late as May 20th, the San Jose Giants corner infielder turned things around and then some in the second half of his sophomore campaign at High-A, seeing his fortunes grow quickly from a bottom-of-the-order black hole to his club’s most important slugger down the stretch.
And while San Jose will fall just short of the playoffs this year with their season set to wrap on Monday, it’s not from a lack of effort from their physically imposing brother-of-a-big-leaguer; down the stretch in 28 games in the month of August alone, Jonah Arenado hit .357/.411/.661/1.072 with 15 doubles, five home runs, and ten walks in 112 at-bats. Not a bad way to cap a season that started so slowly.
The best part about all this is, at least in Arenado’s mind, is that there’s been no special or noteworthy adjustment to save the season. More so, this is just the product of working consistently and maturing into an approach with age.
“It’s hard to say when things changed,” Arenado told Baseball Census in the dugout at San Manuel Stadium after batting practice during San Jose’s final road trip south to face Inland Empire on a particularly hot, muggy day. “I had a really bad beginning of the first half, but by the second half of that first half, I had started to turn things around when I told myself ‘you know what, I need to start taking hacks.’ And that was it. Ever since then I’ve been seeing the ball better, and I’ve been focused on loading a little more, but I think it really just comes down to having better at-bats.”
Better at-bats mean different things to different players, of course. For a speedy lead-off type, maybe it means seeing more pitches, working deeper counts for the benefit of his teammates watching in the dugout, and trying to get on base in any possible way. For a power hitter like Arenado—especially considering his broader trouble in drawing walks—having better at-bats means jumping on the right pitch at the right time, rather than just swinging at the first fastball he sees. Jonah Arenado has been there and done that with the first-fastball hacking, and this summer marked a period of relative patience for the prospect, even if his walk rate may not show it.
“I was way too aggressive last year, and I was hacking first pitch no matter what, regardless of the situation,” Arenado recalled. “I just wanted to hack. I was looking for a fastball whether it was at my head, or if it was low and away painted [on the corner], and I was swinging. This year, I’ve watched more pitches. Especially in the second half, I’ve been waiting for my pitch, and if it’s not there I’ve been checking down, even if it’s a strike. I think that’s why I’ve been so much better, and so much more consistent.”
Waiting for his pitch has proven to be a relative term, though. Even as good as Arenado has been late this year, he’s still failing to do the same thing he failed to do last year: consistently get on base, specifically by drawing walks. He’ll wrap the 2017 season on Monday with an OBP somewhere around .310; roughly 20 points higher than his .286 OBP a year ago, but a far cry from what most power hitters are expected to do.
But maybe, even with modest improvements in his walk rate this year compared to a year ago, high on-base percentages just aren’t meant to be a part of what Jonah Arenado does well. And maybe he can find a way to be successful without it.
“I’m just not going to walk a lot,” he admitted. “I know I should, and I know I should strikeout less, but I’m realizing that just isn’t my game. I’m an aggressive hitter, you know? But if I’m seeing the ball better and hitting better pitches, that’s an improvement. It’s better than striking out on a ball in the dirt, and I’ve been able to lay off a lot more of those pitches that I know I can’t do damage on.”
“Look at Mike Trout,” he continued, making a case for how it might be possible to thrive outside of some of the typical metrics you’d expect from a hitter. “He strikes out, what, 150 times a year? Obviously I don’t think I’m anywhere close to Mike Trout, but he squares a lot of balls up even while striking out and that’s due to him picking good pitches and not missing the good pitch. There’s a path there. Early in the year when I was struggling, I’d see a good pitch and miss it. Sometimes strikeouts aren’t because you’re swinging at terrible pitches, but because you missed a couple fastballs, and then you swung at the ball in the dirt. I don’t necessarily see that as ‘oh, I was swinging at terrible pitches,’ but more like ‘why did I swing at that terrible pitch? Well, because I missed the fastballs.’”
It’s an interesting angle on surviving with a lot of strikeouts and few walks, and frankly it’s an angle Jonah Arenado can really only prove through sustained production in the upper minors the next few years. Nevertheless, perhaps there is a path there. Arenado will always be aggressive; if the San Francisco Giants can rein him in just enough to stay honest in his approach and see the ball well enough to get the best fastball of the at-bat, his raw power could take over and render him valuable in spite of some offensive shortcomings. Time will tell on that.
For now, a second-half surge and the successful conclusion of Arenado’s second straight summer in San Jose has him proud of the development path he’s undergone just to get to this point. It hasn’t always been as easy as the last couple months may have made it seem.
“One thing that comes with struggling is you learn a lot,” he noted when asked about how far he’s come in the last two years. “You learn a lot about yourself, and what you need to do to get out of a slump. I’m sure I’ll still slump moving forward, but now I have a better idea of what I have to do to get back to my plan.”
He shook his head, and mused some more as the sun beat down on him in the dugout.
“Sometimes when you’re struggling, you start thinking too much and you start to question your approach, when in reality you just had a bad game,” the San Francisco Giants prospect said. “Sometimes the pitcher gets you. I hate to admit that any pitcher is better than me. I’m the last guy to admit that ‘oh, this pitcher is really good,’ but there are some really good pitchers here. And sometimes you get a fastball and you just miss it, or your swing is off, or things just don’t go your way. That doesn’t mean you need to change your whole approach.”
Maybe it doesn’t, and maybe the infielder’s aggressive, somewhat unorthodox approach will prove itself productive in Double-A and beyond. After overcoming a brutally slow beginning to the year, though, at least one thing is certain: after two years in San Jose, Jonah Arenado has earned himself a promotion come 2018. Whether he can succeed in doing what he does at the next level remains to be seen — but he’s certainly equipped with the tools to make it interesting.
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