The identity of the Washington Nationals is wrapped up in the team’s star players to an extent that no other MLB team can match. The Nats have existed for only 13 years and brought very little of the rich identity of the Montreal Expos with them. Bryce Harper, age 24, has played in 36.6 percent of Washington Nationals games since the team was founded in 2005. Their uniforms are nice, but kind of bland, as is their ballpark, which for better or worse created a blank slate for the players to craft an identity.
And what players they’ve had: Washington spent back-to-back no. 1 overall picks on the best pitching prospect (Stephen Strasburg) and the best position player prospect (Bryce Harper) of the previous decade, and both turned into multiple-time All-Stars. Max Scherzer’s on track to win his second straight Cy Young Award. Daniel Murphy is hitting .344 over parts of two seasons in Washington. All four have been the center of the national conversation at some time or other, Scherzer for his remarkable single-game performances, Murphy for his openness about sabermetrics, Strasburg for how the Nationals instituted an innings limit on him in 2012, and Harper for, well, just about everything. Not only have all of those players been good, but they’ve all also been interesting, each in his own way.
In that ecosystem, it’s easy for Anthony Rendon to blend in.
Baseball-Reference WAR says three of the top four players in the National League this year have been Nationals: Scherzer, then Rendon, a fraction of a win ahead of Nolan Arenado and Harper. Because Harper and Murphy are also having MVP-caliber seasons, Rendon doesn’t actually lead the Nationals in a single significant offensive category. Rendon’s also playing in a crowded pool of National League third basemen, all of whom have some distinguishing characteristic: Kris Bryant is the reigning MVP and one of the most heavily marketed players in the league. Nolan Arenado has flashy defense and two straight 40-homer seasons. Justin Turner has a wild beard and a .367 batting average.
There’s only so much room in the zeitgeist for Rendon, whose distinguishing characteristic, if he has one, is that he’s quiet. Everyone knows who he is, and most baseball fans know he’s good, but exactly how good is getting lost.
Rendon, a Houston native, stayed near home for college at Rice, where he hit .371/.510/.679 as a three-year starter, including a .394/.539/.801 line as a sophomore, the year before the NCAA deadened the bats. He went pro after his junior year, and was perhaps the best player in the 2011 draft, the deepest of the past decade, but ankle injuries caused him to drop to Washington at no. 6. Even with the injury concerns, he went ahead of Francisco Lindor, Javy Báez, George Springer, José Fernández, Sonny Gray, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Michael Fulmer.
The ankle issue recurred in 2012, costing him 112 minor league games, and Rendon played just 80 games in 2015 after a variety of injuries to his knee, oblique, and quad, but when he’s been healthy he’s been as good as his predraft reputation would indicate. He finished fifth in MVP voting in his first full season in 2014, and even though he took a step back in 2016, hitting .270/.348/.450, he was still a four-win player.
This year, he’s better than ever, despite a troubling start. Heading into action on April 30, Rendon was hitting just .226/.316/.250. In 22 games, he’d recorded just two extra-base hits. That afternoon, Rendon went 6-for-6 with three home runs in a 23–5 rout of the Mets.
Since April 30, Rendon is hitting .346/.456/.701 in 67 games. More than half of his 79 hits have gone for extra bases, including 20 home runs. Rendon, like the Earth, has only gotten hotter as time’s gone on. He’s hitting .407/.522/.722 in July, good for a 228 sOPS+ (OPS+ with league average within the split as the baseline), tied for fourth best in baseball among 268 players with 40 or more plate appearances. (In a fitting coincidence, the best sOPS+ in July belongs to Harper.) In his age-27 season, Rendon is on pace for career highs in batting average, OBP, and SLG, and his next home run will tie his career high of 21.
While his circumstances help keep him hidden, Rendon is one of those players who ends up being underrated because he does everything well, but nothing spectacularly. He has always had good on-base numbers and power, but until this year, he’d never hit .300 or slugged .500. He’s hit double digits in stolen bases twice, but he’s never stolen 20. Even during the best three months of his career, Rendon still isn’t out-hitting Harper, but he makes up ground in WAR by playing a tougher position. Even then, he’s usually graded out somewhere between average and above-average on advanced defensive metrics.
This year, Rendon has become a spectacular hitter in the purest sense of the term. Often, we conflate “hitter” with “offensive player,” wrapping up on-base skills and power with the ability to identify a good pitch and make contact. Aaron Judge has been the best offensive player in the league this year, but he’s a circus act who strikes out a third of the time and hits for a high average only because his outrageous physical strength allows him to hit the ball hard enough to kill an infielder without even making solid contact. A great hitter has to have a balance of power, contact skills, and plate discipline.
This season, Rendon is making contact on a career-high 87.5 percent of his swings, the 10th-best mark among 167 qualified position players. That in and of itself isn’t impressive: Jorge Polanco is one spot ahead of Rendon on the leaderboard, and he’s hitting .217/.267/.310. But Rendon is not only making tons of contact, he’s getting his money’s worth: Of the nine players with a higher contact rate, only Murphy is within 120 points of Rendon’s slugging percentage.
Rendon’s also walking more than he’s striking out, which has been done only 36 times since 2010, counting six players in the as-yet-incomplete 2017 season. Rendon has the fifth-highest SLG of those 36 seasons. One of the four players ahead of him on the list is 2017 Joey Votto. If Votto isn’t the best pure hitter of his generation, he’s up there, and this year, Rendon’s putting up similar numbers to the Reds first baseman.
And remember, that heady set of peripheral numbers includes a month in which Rendon hit like Alcides Escobar. Since April 30, Rendon’s walked 45 times and had 41 extra-base hits and just 32 strikeouts. “Votto at a tougher defensive position” is a good way to describe that level of production. You might also try José Altuve with less speed and more walks, but after that there really isn’t a great reference point for what Rendon is doing, and how he’s doing it.
Even if Rendon isn’t talking himself up, it’s time for the rest of us to start.