While the Nationals will almost assuredly return to the playoffs thanks to one of the game’s top pitching staffs, it has been a bitterly disappointing 2014 season for two of the club’s star position players. Bryce Harper has struggled to make contact since returning from surgery to repair a torn UCL in his left thumb, while Ryan Zimmerman has suffered through hamstring, thumb and shoulder injuries, the last of which has turned the former Gold Glove third baseman into a hazard for front-row fans and a potential corner outfielder in 2015. Harper and Zimmerman have been worth a combined 0.9 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Last year, they combined for 7.3 WAR.
Luckily for the Nats, another former top ten draft pick has emerged as a franchise-caliber player in 2014. Anthony Rendon has avoided the ankle and shoulder injuries that once threatened to derail his own career, and he leads both his club and all National League third basemen with four WAR. Whether he’s at the plate, in the field or on the base paths, the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft is excelling. Here’s a closer look at how the former Rice star has quietly carried the Nationals this season.
- Rendon has increased his park-and-league-adjusted on base plus slugging percentage from one percent below average during his rookie year in 2013 to 18 percent above average in 2014, thanks to a big power boost. Rendon has more than doubled his homer output (from seven to 16), and he has raised his slugging percentage significantly against both fastballs (from .446 to .518) and changeups (.176 to .514). Rendon’s improvement against fastballs is particularly important, considering he sees far more heaters (52.4%) than the MLB average (49.2%).
- The 24-year-old is also playing quality D at third base and at the keystone. Rendon has saved five runs compared to an average fielder at third base, according to Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved metric, and three runs in limited time at second base.
- Rendon might have torn ligaments in and fractured his right ankle as an amateur, but you certainly wouldn’t know it by watching him glide on the bases. Rendon has swiped 12 bags in 13 attempts, and he has taken an extra base (advancing more than one base on a single or more than two on a double) in 56% of possible opportunities. The big league average, by contrast, is just 40%. Overall, Fangraphs estimates that Rendon’s base running prowess has created 5.8 runs more than an average player. That trails only Dee Gordon (+7.7 runs), Ben Revere (+7.2) and Ian Kinsler (+6.2) among all MLB players.
Rendon might not be getting the attention he deserves because he’s very good at a number of things, rather than best-in-the-league in one particular area. It’s also sexier to write columns about the Harper hype train derailing than it is to document the steady growth of a much less brash youngster. But Rendon’s all-around skills call to mind another NL East infielder who subtly dominated over the past decade: Chase Utley. Under-the-radar excellence isn’t sexy, but the Nats would surely take a similar run of NL East titles and a World Series crown.