Do you know who leads all NL hitters in WAR over the past two seasons? Let’s pretend you didn’t read the title of this post; who would you have guessed? Nolan Arenado seems like a safe guess, with his 71 homers and stellar defense. Or maybe it’s Freddie Freeman, or Joey Votto. Actually, there’s one name ahead of all of these guys. Let’s take a look at the combined NL fWAR leaderboard among hitters from 2017 and 2018.
Now, did I purposely make this list a Top-11 so I could squeeze Eugenio Suarez in there? We’ll never know. The point is that Anthony Rendon has been really, really good over the past two seasons. In fact, he’s been the best position player in the NL by a fairly substantial amount. Let’s compare him directly to Nolan Arenado. Over the course of his career, Arenado has earned a well-deserved reputation as a tremendous all-around player. But in recent memory, Rendon has actually been better, both as a hitter and a defender. Here are their numbers side by side.
Arenado’s power numbers do look more impressive, but when you factor in ballpark effects, Rendon has been the better hitter. Despite the large gap in home runs, Rendon has been 11% better than Arenado at the plate according to wRC+. Defensive metrics are notoriously sketchy, but Rendon has a sizable lead in Ultimate Zone Rating as well.
Rendon flew under the radar for the majority of last year. Though he received somewhat of a late push in the MVP race, he was never one of the frontrunners, finishing in 6th. But a quick look at the numbers tells you he was one of the league’s elite players. Rendon was 2nd in the NL with 6.7 WAR, 6th in OBP, and one of only 4 players with more walks than strikeouts. Not to mention he was only 26 years old at the beginning of that season. Basically, after last season, Rendon should have been viewed as one of the league’s very best. So why are we talking about Rendon’s 2017 season? Because he’s doing the same thing this year, and he’s still not getting the credit he deserves.
This year’s NL MVP race is seen as wide open. Christian Yelich, Javier Baez, Matt Carpenter, and even Jacob deGrom have inserted themselves into the conversation. Yet Rendon has not received any buzz. It’s not hard to see why. The Nationals were eliminated from playoff contention Saturday afternoon after a disappointing season. There are many reasons why the Nationals are sitting at .500 instead of in first place, but Anthony Rendon is not one of them. Let’s look at his numbers from this season, and where he ranks in the NL.
This season, Rendon is in the top 10 in just about any category you can name. Most notably, he is behind only Christian Yelich in WAR (to be fair, it is a very distant 2nd). He is also the most valuable third baseman in the NL by UZR, and behind only Matt Chapman and Kyle Seager among all major leaguers. Rendon may not be having the best season of all NL hitters, but he’s certainly up there with Carpenter and Baez.
Speaking of Javier Baez, let’s compare him with Rendon directly. Here is how the two compare using the same numbers from above.
It’s very close. Rendon unsurprisingly leads in the plate discipline categories, given that Baez’ walks per strikeout rate ranks dead last in the NL. Baez hits for more power, evidenced by his large lead in slugging percentage and home runs. Overall, Rendon has a very slight advantage in WAR and wRC+. Supporters of Baez will point to his defense and base running skills. However, these numbers aren’t so clear-cut in his favor either. Baez this season has posted an average UZR of exactly zero, although that metric is hampered by his poor showing in his time at third base this season. Baez does have the edge in DRS, however. Looking at base running, it’s easy to point out Baez’ 21 stolen bases this season, compared to Rendon’s 2. But looking at Fangraphs’ base running coefficient, or BsR, the two players have been nearly identical. This number, with an average set to zero, attempts to encapsulate all aspects of base running. Rendon leads Baez in this statistic 3.9 to 3.8. Baez has been given a lot of credit for his breakout season this year, but let’s not forget that Anthony Rendon has been just as good, if not better.
So where did this come from? Rendon first burst onto the scene in 2014, his first full season, with 21 home runs, 6.4 WAR, and a Silver Slugger award. After a disappointing 2015, he came back with a solid 2016 season (110 wRC+, 4.3 WAR), but nothing like the breakout that was to come. In 2017, Rendon cut his strikeouts from 18.1% to 13.6% while also walking more. This season, Rendon has made an effort to swing more often, while still maintaining elite plate discipline numbers. From 2017 to 2018, he saw his swing rate rise from a low 40.4% to a near-league-average 47.3%. This is the largest positive jump in baseball from last year to this year.
Not all these players have been successful with their change in approach, but the main reason it’s worked for Rendon is because he has not seen a sharp increase in strikeouts. Not only has he been more agressive at the plate, but he has made better contact. His average exit velocity has jumped from 89.8 mph to 90.6 mph, and his percentage of line drives has jumped from 18.8% to 24.0%, the tenth largest jump in the majors. Rendon has changed a lot about his approach from last year to this year, yet the results have been similarly remarkable.
Although he may not get the attention he deserves, the now-free swinging Anthony Rendon is a bonafide superstar. He has provided the Nationals with excellent hitting and fielding, making him one of the most valuable players in all of baseball. I know he’s a longshot to win MVP this year, but let’s not let the best player in the National League fly under our radar any longer.