Without looking, try to guess the two position players who lead the Washington Nationals in WAR. Number one is probably pretty easy; Daniel Murphy is having a great season and his 4.3 leads the way. But number two? It isn’t Trea Turner or Bryce Harper. It’s Anthony Rendon, who has quietly rebounded from an injury-plagued 2015 season to be a key part of the Nationals’ success.
Rendon currently sits at 4.2 WAR, according to Baseball Reference, which not only makes him the number two position player on his team but also ranks him as the eighth best third baseman in Major League Baseball so far this year.
Rendon had a very disappointing 2015, slashing only .264/.344/.363 in 355 plate appearances. This was well below the expectations that he had coming into the season, following a stellar performance in 2014 where he hit .287/.351/.473, accumulated 6.6 WAR, and placed fifth in the National League MVP balloting.
Rendon’s major failing last year was his lack of power. His on-base percentage was not far off his 2014 rate, but the miserable .363 slugging percentage made him a below-average hitter. The Nationals sorely missed that production in their lineup last year, especially during a late season slump that caused them to miss the playoffs.
His struggles continued into the start of 2016, as he only slashed .242/.310/.286 with zero home runs through his first 100 PA of the season. He has, however, found his stroke since then, producing at a .282/.362/.499 clip in his last 483 PA. He has especially shined in the second half, putting up an outstanding .311/.378/.546 since the All-Star break. Pair that with good defense at third base and you’re got yourself a pretty solid player.
Rendon’s ability to put the ball in the air has been a major factor in his success this year, much as it was a cause for his struggles in 2015. Rendon produced a career-high 45.3 percent ground ball rate last year and paired it with a career low 33.3 percent fly ball rate.
He has completely reversed these numbers this year. He currently has a career low 35.5 percent ground ball rate and a career high 43.7 percent fly ball rate. His line drive rate, interestingly, has remained very consistent over this time – he was as 21.4 percent last year and stands at 20.8 this year.
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Producing a high ground ball rate could help a hitter’s batting average, but it really hurts a hitter’s ability to hit for power. Grounders might sneak through the infield for singles, but when was the last time you saw a ground ball leave the park? Fly balls, on the other hand, can carry over the fence or fall into the gaps in the outfield.
If Rendon can consistently elevate the ball, he’s going to be a 20-plus home run, 30-plus doubles hitter. While hitting fewer grounders might suppress his batting average slightly, he can more than make up for it by sending a few more baseballs into the outfield seats.
Rendon’s turnaround has been impressive, and while he isn’t quite performing at an MVP level, he’s established himself as one of the better third baseman in the game and one of the best position players on one of the contenders in the National League. 2015 was pretty clearly a fluke, and he’s once again producing at a high level.