An Ode to the Most Balanced Player in Baseball

Trivia question: Who is leading the National League in WAR. Hint #1: Four of this player’s teammates made the National League All-Star team, but he was left off the roster. Hint #2: This player looks like Kenny Powers stopped drinking and lost about 40 pounds. Hint #3: This player once said that he doesn’t really enjoy baseball. If you still don’t have the answer, the mystery player is Anthony Rendon.

While Rendon should probably be squarely in the middle of the NL MVP conversation, he is once again being totally overlooked. Now I understand it is hard to get noticed when you play on the same team as perhaps the best pitcher and position player in the National League, but it is time that somebody praised Rendon for his brilliance. As of today, August 10th, 2017, the Washington Nationals have the top three players in the NL in terms of WAR. Max Scherzer ranks third. Bryce Harper ranks second. But it is Anthony Rendon that stands alone in the top spot. While Harper bat / hair flips his way onto highlight reels on a nightly basis and Max Scherzer is lauded by pundits everywhere, Rendon quietly contributes more win shares than any other player in the league. I understand why Rendon doesn’t get more time in the spotlight, he doesn’t have any eye-popping tools, 30 for 30 worthy story, and does not give colorful interviews, but what he does do is contribute in all facets of the game. For these reasons, I have declared Anthony Rendon the most balanced player in baseball.

To make this claim, I must first define what I mean by balance. The dictionary definition of balance is “a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.” This definition all but sums up Rendon’s game. He is equally efficient in every aspect of his game, without having a glaring strength or an exploitable weakness.  

As of today, Anthony Rendon is one of just three players that rank above league average in every component of WAR (Def, BsR, Off) and has an above average BB% and K%. The other two players are Brett Gardner and Justin Turner. Out of those three players, Rendon is the only one who has drawn more walks than strikeouts. Factor in all of these statistics and we are looking at a guy who with a great final two months, could easily be in the MVP conversation, despite not making the All-Star team. (Surprisingly, winning the MVP and not playing in the midsummer classic is not as unusual as you would think, as it has happened 13 times throughout MLB history, most recently when Jimmy Rollins accomplished the feat in 2007).

While Rendon’s above average marks across the board are a testament to his all-around game, his balance extends beyond those surface level statistics. Rendon has been able to put up a career offensive season thanks in large part to his newfound Joey Votto-like plate discipline. His 21.1% O-Swing% ranks 8th in the MLB, while his SwStr% is 6th in the league at 5.0%. This means that Rendon is not biting on pitches out of the zone, and he rarely misses when he does decide to swing. While Rendon has always had a solid approach at the plate, his career-high walk rate and career-low strikeout rate is a byproduct of new tendencies. If we look at the largest year-to-year improvements in terms of Z – O Swing% (meaning the guys who swing at strikes and lay off balls the most), Anthony Rendon ranks fifth, increasing this number by 8.4% from 2016 to 2017.

His improved approach at the plate is steady across all scenarios. Take a look at his performance at the plate in low, medium, and high leverage situations.

On-Base Percentage Slugging Percentage OPS
Low Leverage .404 .534 .938
Medium Leverage .418 .595 1.014
High Leverage .375 .500 .875

The changes Rendon has made at the plate do not change regardless of the pressure of the situation. This is indicative of an even keeled and mature approach.

In addition to being relatively unflappable regardless of how pressure packed the game situation may be, Rendon also displays incredible poise when the odds are stacked against him in individual at-bats. Using data from Baseball Savant, no batter in the MLB makes contact at a higher rate with two strikes than Rendon. Rendon is not just adept at putting bat to ball when he is behind in the count, he also regularly does damage when he the pitcher has two strikes on him. Rendon has a 120 wRC+ with two strikes. To give you an idea of how impressive that is, fellow NL MVP candidate Nolan Arenado has a 124 wRC+ overall.

Balance is all about not having a specific area that is exploitable. When a hitter has a certain location he can not get to, or a certain place he consistently hits the ball, pitchers will pound that spot in the zone and defenses will shift to adjust for his tendencies. However, Rendon does not have either of these flaws. In fact, Rendon has one of the most even batted ball spreads in the league. This becomes evident when we look at Rendon’s directional hitting compared to league average:

Pull% Cent% Oppo%
League Average 38.9% 35.3% 25.8%
Anthony Rendon 39.9% 29.4% 30.7%

Rendon takes a few more balls the other way compared to the average hitter in the National League, but his ability to hit the ball where it is pitched prevents the defense from employing defensive shifts against him. As teams get better at defensive shifting, the ability to hit the ball to all fields becomes more important, and Rendon possesses this skill.

When we look at Rendon’s seasonal splits, we encounter similar balance. So far the second half of the season has been more of the same for Rendon as his numbers in every offensive category are nearly identical.

1st Half 14.2% 13.9% 1.02 .304 .407 .552 .960 .316 .403 148
2nd Half 15.4% 14.3% 1.08 .288 .407 .562 .968 .274 .401 147

Considering Rendon’s across-the-board steadiness, there is one area where he has been a tad more volatile. I am not sure whether consistency is inherent in the definition of balance, but when looking at Rendon’s game logs, he definitely has a few performances that dramatically skew his season totals.

Entering a game against the New York Mets on April 30th, Rendon had an OPS of .556 with a puny .024 ISO. But my day’s end, after a historic 6-hit, 3 HR, 10 RBI performance, Rendon had a respectable .768 OPS and .133 ISO. One can view Rendon’s 10 RBIs in the 23 to 5 win as superfluous, but I prefer to look at this performance as a rather expedient regression to the mean after a month of bad luck.

Two more statistic-skewing performances occurred on May 23rd against the Seattle Mariners when he hit two home runs and had 5 RBIs, then on July 15th when he hit two more bombs and plated six against the Cincinnati Reds. Altogether, Rendon had exactly a third of his home runs and over a quarter of his RBIs in these three games, which may make some play the “if-you–eliminate-those-three-games-Rendon-has-had-an-average-season” game, but these arguments don’t hold water. You can’t arbitrarily get rid of these three games because they happened. You can employ the same argument in reverse and scratch many starts in which a pitcher imploded and make unheralded starting pitchers look like aces.

While Rendon has accrued many of his counting stats in these performances, his improved plate discipline is evidence that his uptick in offensive performance is not the product of a few flukey games. In fact, Rendon ranks 23rd in the MLB in xwOBA, (which measures the expected offensive output of a player based on the launch angle / exit velocity on his batted balls), which indicates that Rendon is here to stay.

Anthony Rendon is not just a cog in the high-functioning Nationals offensive machine, but rather a screw that, if removed, would make the machine dysfunction altogether.




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