By Manny Randhawa
DENVER -- "I know I'm not the best hitter in the game."
Nolan Arenado is realistic about his place among baseball's elite. When he hears the chants of "MVP, MVP!" from the Coors Field crowd after a dramatic home run, he takes it in stride, well aware of what playing in his home ballpark means for his chances to win the award.
"That's for other people to decide," Arenado says. "But I'm getting better."
And that's what we should understand about Arenado: He's getting better, and the National League MVP Award aura surrounding him is extraneous as far as he's concerned.
At age 26, Arenado is proving he's not simply a product of his environment, a hitter benefiting from the altitude and acreage of Coors Field.
The MVP chants and the debate in baseball circles over whether Arenado is over- or underrated, which take into account his incredible defensive prowess at third base, only apply more external pressure on him to perform in a way that should satisfy the Coors detractors. And yet, he's doing just that.
In 2016, Arenado's home-road splits were stark: At Coors field, his weighted runs created plus statistic was 132, whereas on the road, it was 116. His expected weighted on-base average at home, per Statcast™, was .375; on the road, it was .328.
So far in 2017, he's raised the wRC+ away from Coors to 125 as the Rockies open a road trip in Cleveland on Tuesday. He's also raised the xwOBA by 30 points, to .358. That's 10 points better than his home xwOBA this season.
"Obviously it hurts me that I play [at Coors Field], and people kind of dog me for that," Arenado said. "But I've done a pretty good job of driving runs in the last three years. I feel like I've made adjustments."
Arenado has cut his ground-ball rate on the road by nearly 10 percent over last season, dropping it from 37.9 percent to 28.6 percent, tied for eighth-lowest in baseball with the Royals' Salvador Perez. Many of those balls in play have found their way into the fly ball category, where Arenado has increased his percentage from 44.5 to 49.2.
In 2016, 25 of Arenado's 41 homers came at Coors Field. This season, 11 of his 25 homers have been hit on the road.
"I think at the end of the day, the last thing I'm trying to do is be a singles hitter," Arenado said. "I'm still gonna drive in runs, and I know I can do that on the road, also. So no need to change who I am. There have been times in the past where I was just trying to get base hits here and there, but now I'm not afraid of letting it eat like I should."
"Letting it eat" explains the jump in road xwOBA. Arenado had 31 extra-base hits away from Coors in 2016. So far in 2017, he already has 29. It also explains Arenado's heat map of balls in play on the road, which has changed drastically from last season.
Arenado has a good chance of finishing in the top five when it comes to National League MVP voting this season. And while many voters grapple with the Coors Field effect in Arenado's case, many also give heavy consideration to how an MVP candidate performs in high-leverage situations.
In that respect, Arenado has been outstanding in 2017. In terms of win probability added, his 3.77 is second in the Majors only to Bryce Harper's 4.35.
Nonetheless, given the type of seasons Harper, Paul Goldschmidt, Corey Seager, Joey Votto and others are putting together, it's an uphill climb for Arenado.
So maybe it's time to ask a different question: How many MVP Awards will Arenado win in the years to come? Because the way he approaches his craft amid the debate over his value as a player suggests that it's not a matter of "if," but "when."
"I see guys like Goldschmidt and those guys -- Goldschmidt's like my hero, and he's just as deserving of MVP as anyone I've ever seen," Arenado said. "He's gotten better every year. He's someone I want to be like."
Arenado hasn't yet reached his prime. The four Gold Glove Awards, the three All-Star appearances, the 136 homers -- all of it has preceded his 27th birthday. He's still growing into what he's going to become. So if he falls short of being named the NL MVP this season, just remember what he said:
"I'm getting better."
Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com and contributor to Sports on Earth. You can follow him on Twitter @MannyOnMLB.