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Nationals’ 3B Anthony Rendon’s major-league leading season explained

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Anthony Rendon is part of the Final Vote to pick the last member of the NL All-Star roster... before all the injuries and opt-outs open up spaces in the All-Star Game...

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Rendon does not like to have the spotlight on him.

It’s a well-known fact; reporters know not to expect long, self-promoting quotes from him that make headlines, and he never generates too much national buzz for what he says or does.

However, on April 30th, that all changed, at least for one day.

Entering the day, Rendon’s average was .226. He had no homers, and only 5 RBI, good for a slugging percentage of .250.

Then came an afternoon game against the New York Mets, in which the Nats’ third baseman racked up three home runs, six hits, and ten RBI.

By the end of it, his average was .278, and his slugging percentage was .411.

For one day, the spotlight was on “Tony Two-Bags.” SportsCenter, MLB Network, the Washington Post, MASN, and everything in between all put their microphones in his face, hoping to hear something, really anything that they could put in an article or that day’s show.

Unsurprisingly, they were disappointed — Rendon gave them quotes, but they all were about that day’s pitching (the team gave up five runs, by the way).

When MASN’s Dan Kolko expressly asked the Nats’ 2011 first-round pick if there was any way he would comment on his historic day, the third baseman simply responded with a plain “No” before hitting the showers.

It was a great day for the Nats and Rendon. However, almost everyone expected him to come back down to earth; although his career average numbers were around that .270 mark, he wasn’t known as a power hitter, nor was he the most prominent slugger on the Nats at the time (or really ever).

Then something odd happened. Yes, he came back to earth — he’s not hitting three homers per game — but not as much as one would expect.

Last season, Rendon hit .270 with a .348 OBP, along with 20 home runs and 85 RBI.

To this point in the season, he’s hitting .298 with a .399 OBP, along with 16 home runs and 50 RBI, good for a 3.4 WAR — and the number one spot at the list of the best third baseman in the majors by WAR.

In fact, there are only four qualified players that are having a better season by WAR than Rendon—Aaron Judge, Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, and Jose Altuve. Not bad company for a player whose highest ever finish in MVP voting was fifth (2014).

Should we have all seen this coming? Well, maybe. On one hand, the Houston-native’s torrid second half of 2016 in which he hit .291 with 11 home runs and 52 RBI was among the better halves in baseball last year, earning him the title of NL Comeback Player of the Year. But on the other hand, that stretch certainly wasn’t *this* good.

Regarding his placement at the top of the list of third basemen: Rendon is having a great season; if the regular season ended today, it would be the best of his career in terms of average and OBP. With that said, his rise has been aided by the fall of a few prolific third basemen.

To start, 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs has put up numbers that are considerably—although not significantly—worse than his stats from 2016. Bryant, who hit .292 with 39 home runs on his way to an 8.7 WAR, is currently hitting .264 and is on pace for 32 home runs.

His strikeout rate is roughly the same, and his walk rate has gone up by around 5%, to 15.9%, but his low average is keeping his WAR down, to 2.7 thus far.

However, the real kicker is as follows: Two guys that would normally crack every single analyst’s top-3 list, Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado, ranked 2 and 3 respectively in WAR out of third basemen in 2016, are both playing drastically below their pay grade, putting up WARs below 1.5 to this point in the season.

Donaldson, the 2015 AL MVP, has missed nearly half of the games played this season due to injury, and since returning, has only put up a .254 average—a number that will almost assuredly go up—but is nowhere near where he or the Blue Jays want it to be at the moment.

A more distressing drop-off is Machado’s 2017 performance; although he’s been horrifically unlucky (a .227 BABIP alongside a .217 average), he’s also striking out more than ever (a 20.4% rate is a career high) and has lost some power, only on pace for 30 home runs after a 37 home run season.

However, the struggles of his peers still can’t discredit Rendon’s career year. What exactly has driven up his numbers by this much?

It certainly isn’t luck; Rendon’s .298 average and .303 BABIP are so close to each other that luck can almost certainly be ruled out of the equation.

One possible explanation is that the third baseman has found his power stroke this season; the Texan is hitting the ball harder (90.52 MPH on average, compared to the Major League average of 87.75 MPH), at a significantly higher angle (19.24 degrees on average, compared to 12.60 on average for the Majors), and significantly further (227.90 feet on average, as opposed to the Major League average of 198.68 feet) than the rest of the big leagues.

That’s shown in his ISO, a measurement used to calculate a player’s raw power. Up until 2017, Rendon had never gotten the statistic above .180. This year, he’s reached .257.

The same goes for his slugging percentage, which had never gone above .473 in his career until this year (it currently sits at .555.).

Moreover, Rendon was famous in college for walking more than he struck out. That statistic never quite made the transition over to the majors; in his tenure as a Washington National, the Rice alum had never gotten his walk rate above 10.1%, and his strikeout rate never dipped below 15.2%.

However, the 27-year-old’s impressive control and eye for the strike zone have finally come out in full force this year; his walk rate of 14.1% (a career high) has inched above his 13.7% strikeout rate (a career low).

The gap isn’t as pronounced as it was in college, when he walked 176 times compared to 78 strikeouts, but his current rate of 44 walks to 43 strikeouts is tremendously impressive, especially given that he’s only been intentionally walked twice this season.

Compare that to Joey Votto (the only player with a higher WAR than Rendon that walks more than he strikes out), who’s been on the receiving end of eight intentional walks.

All of these factors together lead to more runs, RBI, and a higher average for Rendon, numbers that should put him squarely in the race for NL MVP, ahead of Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, and Daniel Murphy.

Unfortunately for Rendon, they don’t; the name-brand recognition of many other stars such as Goldschmidt and Harper, in part due to the national media attention they receive that Rendon seems to so strongly dislike, will most likely prevail over Rendon’s quiet, calm demeanor.

Harper has campaigned for more attention to be on Rendon, making the third baseman’s case for him.

“Rendon’s a stud. He’s able to go out there and have good at-bats and swing at his pitch,” Harper said, as quoted by Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post. “Plays great third base. Definitely an all-star in my book.”

Rendon will also almost assuredly not be in the National League’s starting lineup for the All-Star Game. It makes sense; fans are predisposed to voting for the mega-stars (see: Harper, Trout, Judge) and their own personal favorites. Trea Turner’s favorite player doesn’t really crack either of those lists outside of Washington.

He may come on via the Final Vote selection, although then again, he may not, or maybe if a spot opens up because of an injury. He may work his way into the NL MVP conversation, although then again, he may not.

Either way, don’t expect him to say all too much about it.