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Original Issue

The Hot Cornerstone

The magical Nolan Arenado embraced defense only after his transition from shortstop

There have been many hundreds of ground balls, 76 double plays, countless dives and twists and heaves. Over 2½ seasons Walt Weiss has been left slack-jawed and bug-eyed, incredulous and confused about how what he's just seen could have occurred within the laws of physics.

But for all the defensive magic Nolan Arenado has spun, the play his manager wants to discuss actually cost his team a run. It was May 2013 in Houston, one month into the third baseman's big league career. With Astros on second and third and one out, the opposing hitter chopped a ball to Arenado's left. Arenado fielded it, but instead of spinning toward first base, he fired home. "There really was very little chance of him making the play," Weiss recalls. "And he didn't make the play. For me, even though there was no out ... that spoke volumes, because he was a rookie and had the courage to try to pull that play off as opposed to just throwing to first."

In that moment Weiss knew Arenado was worthy of every ounce of hype Weiss had heard about his arm—and his eyes, and his brain. Since that day, Arenado has gone on to become only the fifth player in MLB history (after Frank Malzone, Johnny Bench, Charles Johnson and Ichiro Suzuki) to win back-to-back Gold Gloves in his first two seasons. Over that time he's been responsible for 62 Defensive Runs Saved above average, but the stats don't capture the visceral experience of watching Arenado; in a game that's been criticized for being too slow, he is a sinewy blur.

In high school, where Arenado played shortstop, he was uninterested in defense. But when the Rockies took him with the 59th pick of the 2009 draft and moved him to third, he began to see the beauty of fielding, of reacting to almost imperceptible factors and studying batters' tendencies to place himself on the right patch—nay, blade—of grass for every swing. "I try to get myself in the right spot all the time," Arenado says.

The Rockies' locker room is effusive in its praise for the third baseman. Five-time All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki says he's in awe of Arenado's fearlessness, calling him "a superstar." Utility infielder Daniel Descalso lauds his work ethic, the thousands of grounders he fields in practice every week. Arenado has a chance to be among the best-fielding third basemen of all time, though he resists comparisons. "My style's different," he says. "If I tried to be [anyone else], I probably wouldn't be that good."