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Does Washington Nationals’ Anthony Rendon have a legitimate MVP case?

There’s little doubt that Anthony Rendon has been the MVP of the Washington Nationals this season, but does he have a case to be National League MVP?

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Where would the Washington Nationals be this season without Anthony Rendon? It’s a question many are glad is completely hypothetical, as the answer is it wouldn't be pretty.

When he was on the Injured List earlier this season, the Nationals went just 3-7 in his absence. Sure, it’s a small sample and there were so many factors in the team’s early-season struggles, but he’s clearly been their best all-around player all year.

So far in 2019, he is slashing .329/.407/.617 with 29 home runs and 104 RBIs, all of which are career-highs for Rendon. Not a bad time to have his best big league season, huh?

“He’s having an unbelievable year,” manager Dave Martinez said during the team’s recent series in Pittsburgh.

“He comes ready to play every day. I say it all the time, he’s the constant in our lineup that keeps our lineup going.”

“What a tremendous job he’s done in the lineup, and also playing defense. He’s just super-super special and is having a great year.”

On Monday, it was announced that Rendon had won National League Player of the Week, slashing .483/.543/.793 with two home runs and seven RBIs as the Nationals won six of their seven games on the road.

Could there be more prestigious awards on the horizon for Rendon? When his manager was asked about whether his third baseman had an NL MVP case in his post-game press conference, he was ready to go to bat for his man.

“I’ll make a case for him right now,” Martinez said gleefully after the team’s sweep of the Chicago Cubs. “MVP, Gold Glove, my man, Anthony.”

So far this year, the conversation has generally centered around Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich, or “Belli and Yeli,” as they’re dubbed in their TV commercial.

That’s not without good reason. Bellinger and Yelich are both hitting well over .300, have an OPS over 1.000, and are locking horns in an enthralling home run race. Both even have a chance to exceed 50 home runs, a number nobody in the majors cleared last season.

While you won’t see Rendon playing the baseball version of HORSE for TV purposes, with the way he’s hitting the ball, it’s fair to wonder whether he deserves to be in the same class as the Bellingers and Yelichs of the world.

So, for the sake of argument, let’s open up the field to include Rendon and another pair of players in Ketel Marte and Ronald Acuña Jr. who join him in the “best of the rest” group.

First, let’s look at some of the old school statistics and how the five players compare to each other.

NL MVP Race Old School Statistics

Statistic Anthony Rendon Cody Bellinger Christian Yelich Ketel Marte Ronald Acuña Jr.
Statistic Anthony Rendon Cody Bellinger Christian Yelich Ketel Marte Ronald Acuña Jr.
Games 116 128 117 125 132
AVG .329 .310 .332 .321 .290
OBP .407 .407 .426 .383 .374
SLG .617 .649 .679 .572 .526
Runs 94 101 91 86 106
Home Runs 29 42 41 27 36
RBI 104 100 89 76 89
SB 3 11 25 9 30
Errors 8 2 3 3 3
Fielding Pct .971 .995 .986 .991 .990

Based on some of the old school stats, you can already see why both Bellinger and Yelich are seemingly so far ahead in the MVP race. Though Rendon's batting average is right up there, he still lags behind in on-base percentage and is way behind in slugging.

And while he’s comparable in some counting stats, he doesn’t have the elite home run power the top two have boasted all year, even while accounting for the games Rendon missed.

The only category above that Rendon leads the MVP candidates in is RBIs with 104, which is second in the NL overall, just behind Freddie Freeman.

Even though RBIs are generally viewed as something of an archaic statistic in recent years, Rendon reaching triple-digits for just the second time in his career is still noteworthy.

“It’s a testament to what he’s done all year,” Martinez said of Rendon reaching 100 RBI. “He’s been really good, let’s remember that he missed some time too in the beginning, so what he’s done, he’s done fairly quickly, and we’ve still got five weeks left to play.”

So, in short, Rendon is lagging behind in the old school metrics. Unfortunately, some of the more advanced stats don’t exactly paint a much better picture for the third baseman.

NL MVP New School Statistics

Statistic Anthony Rendon Cody Bellinger Christian Yelich Ketel Marte Ronald Acuña Jr.
Statistic Anthony Rendon Cody Bellinger Christian Yelich Ketel Marte Ronald Acuña Jr.
fWAR 5.7 6.8 6.7 6.0 5.0
bWAR 5.3 7.9 6.1 6.1 4.9
OPS 1.024 1.057 1.105 .955 .900
wRC+ 156 166 173 142 130
OPS+ 155 174 179 141 126
Defensive Runs Saved 1 23 -2 8 7
Defensive Rating 3.9 4.9 -4.5 9.0 1.3
Ultimate Zone Rating 1.9 9.3 1.2 7.0 3.0
Base Running Rating 1.4 0.1 5.9 3.1 5.5

The advanced hitting metrics give a clear edge to Bellinger and Yelich. Both wRC+ and OPS+, which are normalized with 100 as league-average and also park-weighted, give the top two clear breathing room right now, though Rendon is ahead of Marte and Acuña.

However, it’s the defensive metrics that really take their toll on Rendon. Though in general he’s regarded as a good fielder, he’s taken a small step backward this year.

Bellinger has had a Gold Glove caliber season in the outfield, showing off his range and spectacular arm on numerous occasions. Marte has also been excellent and well above-average in center field, while Acuña has been a plus-outfielder at all three positions.

In fairness, Yelich hasn’t had a great defensive year, but his offensive numbers would seem to be the best of the bunch, meaning he can afford to be an average fielder in this race.

Put it all together, which both WAR calculations do nicely, and it looks like Bellinger is the favorite to be MVP, but Yelich is nipping at his heels after missing time earlier in the season.

WAR isn't the be-all and end-all by any means, but it puts into perspective how far behind the two front-runners Rendon is when taking all statistical categories into account.

Now, there’s plenty of time for Rendon to make up the numbers, especially with the way he hit to earn Player of the Week. However, there’s a lot of ground to make up on Bellinger and Yelich that it might just be too tall of a task for him.

The most realistic case that Rendon would have is that, arguably, he’s more valuable to the Nationals because, without him, they would probably not be in line to make the postseason. Meanwhile, without Bellinger, the Dodgers might still be romping home in the NL West and the Brewers would still be short of the postseason without Yelich.

However, the award is generally seen as a best player award, rather than favoring someone who might be more valuable to their team than the other. The Nats have seen this case fall by the wayside first-hand.

Back in 2016 it was Daniel Murphy and Kris Bryant as the main protagonists for the NL MVP award. Bryant had the superior statistical season, yet his team cruised home in the NL Central, while the Nats needed Murphy to keep the New York Mets at arms-length.

In the end, it was Bryant who romped home to take NL MVP honors that season.

With that in mind, unfortunately, it almost certainly leaves Rendon outside of the MVP conversation for now, as Yelich and Bellinger do indeed have breathing room between them and the best of the rest.

Rendon’s sensational season still deserves plenty of plaudits and he might finally be getting the national attention he deserves.

In any other season, he would be right in the thick of the NL MVP race. It's just that Bellinger and Yelich are on another level right now, not that Rendon will complain about the spotlight being elsewhere.