Sunday, December 21, 2014

Baseball is boring?

For someone who thinks baseballis boring, Anthony Rendon doesn’t play like he’s bored. The MVP of the 2014 Nationals team, he registered a 6.6 WAR to go along with his stellar defense at third and more than adequate defense at second. The big question, though, is whether this phenomenal 2014 was a rookie (technically not a rookie by Rookie of the Year measurements I know, but his first full season) flash in the pan that the league adjusts to, or the sign of staying power in the league.

Rendon is calm, cool, and collected at the plate. When it comes to batting stances, on one of the end of the spectrum you have Bryce Harper who looks like every muscle in his body is gearing up to fire. On the other end would be Rendon, who looks like he is stepping into the box for a slow pitch, beer league softball team. That calm demeanor spills over into Rendon’s approach at the plate. He only swings 41% of the time compared to the league average 47%. He rarely swings at pitches out of the strike zone, an O-swing% of just under 24% in 2014. When he does actually swing, Rendon doesn’t miss. He posted only a 5% swinging strike rate (compared to 9% league average) and a consistent 87% contact rate that is actually over 93% on pitches in the zone. That approach leads to a walk rate that is just about spot on with the league at 8.5% in 2014, but a tiny strikeout rate at 15%. With that patience, it wouldn’t surprise me to see that walk rate take a nice bump up going forward, especially when you see the consistent double digit walk rates he posted in the minor leagues. 

Rendon knows what pitch he is looking for, and it’s hard to get him to chase something that’s not right where he wants it. Rendon looks for the ball inside and down, as evidence in this heatmap via Fangraphs that shows Rendon’s swing rates by zone. The good news for Rendon is that when he connects with those pitches, he does damage. Check out this heatmp that shows his slugging rates by zone. Those red hot zones where he really drives ball line up almost identically with his swing zones.
That measured approach at the plate obviously played out well in 2014. He hit .287/.351/.473, good for a wRC+ of 130, meaning he was 30% better than the average hitter. He slugged 21 homeruns and even swiped 17 bases at an 85% success rate. He was a positive runner on the base paths even when not stealing, putting up a BsR score of 7.4, showing that he was a good situational base runner as well. 

Is this success sustainable, though? Let’s take a look at some of the usual signs of luck or regression to see how it looks for Rendon. First off, he posted a .314 BABIP that is slightly above league average, but not out line with his historical performance. His HR/FB rate is in line with the league, although some evidence shows that power tends to peak around 24-26 years of age so a further breakout of something along the lines of 30 homeruns probably isn’t likely. He has shown good power to all fields as 5 of his 21 homeruns were to right-center or right field. Overall, nothing sticks out that would lead me to scream regression or luck.

On top of the great hitting, Rendon is an asset defensively. DRS had him rated as a below average defender at second and third in 2013 but as a good defender in 2014 at both positions. UZR was more positive on him for both years at both positions. With the limited sample size for Rendon from an advanced defensive analysis viewpoint, the eye test may be the better measurement for the time being. In my view, and the general consensus from media types, Rendon has the arm strength, hands, and footwork to stick at either second or third. As we mentioned in the review of second base free agents, Rendon might be more valuable to the Nats as a second baseman, but that position will take a larger toll on Rendon’s health (specifically his ankles) so third base would be the better spot for his long term outlook.

Take all those pieces: the great hitting approach and results, the good defensive work, and the added bonus of the plus baserunning, and you get an MVP candidate. Keeping in mind that he has had only one full season in the majors, you can’t count out the potential for improvement. The biggest question for Rendon heading into 2015 is not whether he will continue to perform, but what position he will be playing. We will have to wait to see the results of Mike Rizzo’s wheeling and dealing to know the answer to that question.

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