Handy man: Rendon dangerous in any count

Nats 3B has uncanny ability to foul off tough pitches

June 22nd, 2017

The first thing anyone mentions about are his hands. Then you shake one, cavernous and workman-like, and it swallows yours whole.

"For me, they are how I can control the bat," the Nationals' third baseman said one recent afternoon, his right hand clamped over the barrel of his Marucci maple bat. "I don't have 250 pounds ... coming from my frame. If I can manipulate this barrel, I can be successful."

The hands are what helped make Rendon the top collegiate hitter out of Rice University in 2011, and a National League MVP Award candidate in his second big league season. They allow him to swing a 33 1/2-inch, 32-ounce bat, a top-heavy weapon with the -1.5 weight distribution typically reserved for more lumbering sluggers (weight distributions of -2 or slightly more are more common).

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This year, those hands are driving a personal improvement that has Rendon playing the best baseball of his career. He has a slash line of .289/.390/.528 with 13 home runs and 45 RBIs through 66 games. All are career-high marks or on pace to pass his previous career-best marks. And through a certain lens, perhaps the numbers are unsurprising for a 27-year-old player with doubles power coming into his own in the middle of one of the best lineups in the Majors.

But what really jump off the back of Rendon's baseball card are his plate-discipline numbers, and this is where those hands play a major role.

More than ever before, Rendon will widen out with two-strikes, close the front side of his stance a bit, and use his hands to fight.

"I wish we had stats on pitches spoiled," Nationals television color analyst F. P. Santangelo said on air Wednesday, as Rendon grinded through a nine-pitch at-bat. "Anthony Rendon would be at the top of that list."

Well, Statcast™ does have those stats. And Rendon is.

Washington's third baseman is either putting the ball into play or fouling it off on 90.6 percent of the two-strike swings he takes, according to Statcast™-- the best rate among hitters in the Majors with at least 100 two-strike swings.

Against pitches outside the zone, Rendon is either putting the ball into play or fouling it off on 84.3 percent of his two-strike swings, the fourth-best mark in the bigs. All of which means he's protecting the zone and staying in at-bats as well as anyone.

"I try to think shorter swing with two strikes," Rendon said. "That's how I was raised and taught the game of baseball."

Over his first four big league seasons, Rendon adhered unwaveringly to a respectable, if unflashy, contact rate. Each season he struck out almost exactly two times for each time he walked.

This year, he's cut that rate in half. Rendon has 39 walks against 40 strikeouts, putting him among a handful of players with a legitimate chance at walking more than they strike out this season.

In the age of always-increasing strikeout totals, Rendon has sliced his personal strikeout rate to 14.7 percent and increased his walk rate to a 14 percent. Both are career bests.

The approach has Rendon hitting a career-best .238/.359/.362 with two strikes, which may not look great until compared to the average. Across baseball, MLB batters are hitting .175/.248/.279 with two strikes.

"I believe in hands. He has some of the best hands and wrists in the league," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "That's a big part of hitting, because most of the time the pitcher can't duplicate that payoff pitch."

Once a badge of honor among certain circles of hitters, waking as much as one strikes out has become an increasingly rare, and generally ignored, achievement.

Thirty-seven players did it in 1990. The club dwindled to 30 by 2000, then 13 by '05. To do so today is far more challenging than it was even then, and hitting philosophies have since morphed to significantly devalue contact.

Only 14 players have joined the club over the past four years combined. Just three -- , Joe Panik and -- walked as often as they struck out last season, the lowest single-season total in Major League history. With one more walk, Rendon would join the six qualified hitters doing so this season.

"Maybe it's me maturing in a baseball sense," Rendon said.