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Fast start puts Rendon in spotlight

@JamalCollier
April 15, 2019

WASHINGTON -- All around the Nationals organization -- players, coaches, front office members and fans -- people are constantly perplexed as to why Anthony Rendon has never made an All-Star team. He is one of the game’s best defenders at third base. He is one of the league’s most consistent

WASHINGTON -- All around the Nationals organization -- players, coaches, front office members and fans -- people are constantly perplexed as to why Anthony Rendon has never made an All-Star team.

He is one of the game’s best defenders at third base. He is one of the league’s most consistent hitters. He is among the top 10 position players in all of MLB by Wins Above Replacement since the start of 2016, according to Fangraphs -- ahead of contemporaries at his position, Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado.

It’s true that Rendon actively avoids the spotlight and thrives when flying under the radar in favor of his more famous teammates. But with Bryce Harper no longer in D.C., Rendon instantly became the focal point of the Nationals' lineup. And he’s never been off to a start quite like this.

Entering Monday, Rendon was batting .400/.460/.873 while riding a career-high 13-game hitting streak. He'd notched an extra-base hit in 10 consecutive games, which had set a Nationals team record before it was snapped Sunday. Overall, Rendon’s 231 wRC+ and 1.2 WAR trail only Mike Trout of the Angles and Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers. Already one of baseball’s best players, Rendon has started the year off by playing on another level.

“He’s the best player in baseball right now,” said Pirates starter Trevor Williams, who gave up a solo homer to Rendon Friday night. “I thought I made a good pitch, and he put a better swing on it. What he’s doing right now is very impressive. It’s fun to watch when we’re not playing him. It’s tough to watch when we are playing him.

“He’s getting pub from the players. Players recognize what he’s doing. I don’t know when we play these guys again, but hopefully he’s got three days off when we see him next.”

Rendon doesn’t know why he has gotten off to such a fast start. His offseason routine was the same, and he insists he isn’t doing anything different at the plate. However, he has seen one of the biggest increases in hard-hit rate since last season, as tracked by Statcast.

Largest increase in hard-hit rate* from 2018-19
Minimum 200 batted balls in 2018, plus minimum 25 batted balls in ’19

1) Kevin Kiermaier (TB): +25.1%
2) Niko Goodrum (DET): +22.7%
*3) Anthony Rendon (WSH): +22.1% (44.6% to 66.7%)
*
4) Brandon Belt (SF): +19.6%
5) Amed Rosario (NYM): +18.0%

*Hard-hit rate: Percentage of batted balls hit with 95+ mph exit velocity

That hard-hit rate of 66.7 percent for Rendon ranks second in the Majors behind Aaron Judge for all players with at least 25 batted balls. The only thing better than a hard-hit ball is a barrel, which has an exit velocity and launch angle combination that usually results in extra-base hits, and Rendon is barreling up 22.9 percent of his batted balls (fifth in MLB).

“Obviously I feel like I’m in a groove,” Rendon said. “But at the same time, I’ve barreled up balls in the past and they’ve been hit right at people. ... It feels good to be in a groove this early, because I haven’t felt this way in the past. And also it feels good that the ones I don’t hit on the barrel are actually falling.”

And even with the uptick in power, Rendon has remained one of the best contact hitters in the National League, with nearly as many walks (six) as strikeouts (eight), and among the top 10 in contract rate in the NL.

Highest contact rate*, NL hitters, 2019
Minimum 50 total swings (144 NL hitters)

1) Joe Panik (SF): 96.3%
2) JB Shuck (PIT): 90.0%
3) Wilmer Flores (ARI): 89.7%
4) Martin Prado (MIA): 88.9%
5) Ketel Marte (ARI): 87.2%
6) Melky Cabrera (PIT): 87.0%
7) Jason Heyward (CHC): 86.6%
8) Jose Martinez (STL): 86.4%
9) Anthony Rendon (WSH): 86.3%
10) Alex Verdugo (LAD): 85.9%

*Contact rate: Balls in play plus foul balls divided by total swings

It’s still very early in the season, so all the small-sample-size caveats apply, but it's not unreasonable to think Rendon can continue playing at such an elite level. The more he continues to rake, the more his price tag could be going up as he plays out the final year of his contract with the Nationals, where he has expressed a desire to stay, and the club has expressed interest in keeping him. Fans at Nationals Park have made their opinions known, chanting "lock him up, lock him up," when Rendon comes to the plate.

And Rendon's fast start is encouraging for those around the team who have already begun campaigning to send Rendon to Cleveland this summer for the 2019 MLB All-Star Game. If he continues to play at this level, he could put himself in contention to win his first MVP Award.

“Seems like he always gives the field a big advantage in April,” Nats hitting coach Kevin Long said. “Certainly if he puts everything together, he could do better than he’s done in the past. I think the biggest key here is the April start. It’s something that he hasn’t done in the past, getting off to this good start.

“Who knows where this is going to end up, but certainly it’s pretty special what he’s doing right now.”

Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.