Anthony Rendon Is the Hottest Hitter in Free Agency After Huge Postseason

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 7, 2019

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 29:  Anthony Rendon #6 of the Washington Nationals celebrates his two-run home run against the Houston Astros during the seventh inning in Game Six of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 29, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Anthony Rendon picked a hell of a time to have the best season of his career and one of the most heroic postseasons for a hitter in recent memory.

His efforts not only helped lead the Washington Nationals to their first World Series championship but also happened on the eve of his first venture into free agency. The 29-year-old third baseman became the top hitter available when the market opened last Thursday.

Judging from the reaction to shortstop Trea Turner's question during the Nationals' championship parade Saturday, Rendon's teammates would very much like him back:

To its credit, the Nationals front office made a real effort to avoid this situation. According to Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post, the Nats made Rendon a seven-year contract extension offer in the $210-215 million range in early September. 

His decision to bet on himself, however, only looks wiser in retrospect.

Even before the postseason, Rendon was riding the high of a regular season in which he finished among the National League leaders with a .319 average, .412 on-base percentage, .598 slugging percentage and 6.3 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference. He also hit a career-high 34 home runs and led Major League Baseball with 126 runs batted in.

From there, all he did in the playoffs was hit .328/.413/.590 with three home runs in 17 games. According to The Baseball Gauge, his homers in Games 6 and 7 of the World Series were the third- and fourth-biggest hits of the entire postseason.

Perhaps nobody should have been surprised that Rendon was so unfazed by the pressure of the playoffs. He did, after all, also handle pressure in the regular season to the tune of an MLB-best 1.268 OPS in high-leverage situations.

The odd thing about Rendon is how he existed in relative obscurity before 2019 despite his occasional flashes of superstardom.

To wit, he wasn't selected to a single All-Star team between 2014 and 2018 despite ranking 10th in the National League in WAR during that span. He was particularly outstanding in 2017 and 2018, across which he hit .305/.389/.534 with 137 extra-base hits.

Having to share the spotlight with better-known teammates such as Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer didn't do Rendon's star power any favors. He also never went out of his way to seek attention—let's just assume he didn't expect his hot take about baseball being "too long and boring" to go viral in 2014—and his style of play was more effective than it was flashy.

All the while, however, Rendon was making gradual improvements that made his big break an inevitability.

Take his plate approach, for instance. He began his career as a disciplined yet passive hitter. But over time, the gap between his in-zone and out-of-zone swing rates has gotten wider. The former has increased, while the latter has remained steady:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs

Come this season, Rendon was perhaps the toughest out to get in the National League. He led the NL with an 88.3 contact percentage and with a 0.93 walk-to-strikeout ratio.

Meanwhile, he also effectively doubled his average launch angle between 2015 (10.0 degrees) and 2019 (19.5 degrees). Likewise, his average exit velocity on fly balls leaped from 89.4 mph to 93.5 mph.

There are better hitters than Rendon in Major League Baseball. Anyone who doesn't want to take, say, the word of OPS+ for that can take it from Statcast's xwOBA metric. It rated Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, Christian Yelich and Nelson Cruz ahead of Rendon in 2019.

Yet Rendon might be baseball's most efficient hitter right now. As in, he's arguably the best at picking battles he can win when he's at the plate. That he's also clutch is a nice bonus.

Rendon's defense is still another nice bonus. He hasn't been and may never be a Gold Glover, but metrics such as defensive runs saved (plus-18) and ultimate zone rating (plus-32.1) have scored him as an above-average third baseman.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 29:  Anthony Rendon #6 of the Washington Nationals throws out the runner against the Houston Astros during the eighth inning in Game Six of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 29, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by
Elsa/Getty Images

Per Manny Machado's 10-year, $300 million contract with the San Diego Padres and Nolan Arenado's eight-year, $260 million pact with the Colorado Rockies, the going rate for a superstar third baseman is a long-term contract worth roughly $30 million per year.

Because Rendon is older than Machado (who was 26) and Arenado (who was 27) were when they signed their deals, he likely won't match the length of their contracts in his next one. A seven-year term is probably the best he can do. 

Still, a contract of that length at $30 million per year would at least get him to where Washington's initial offer was. If he can convince one team to match Arenado's average annual value of $32 million, he'd be looking at a $224 million guarantee.

Unless, of course, Rendon has other ideas. According to ESPN's Buster Olney, "some friends" believe he might prefer a shorter deal with a higher AAV. Such a contract would have to be in the range of five years at $40-45 million per to get his total guarantee into the $200 million neighborhood.

Whatever the case, basically the only thing Rendon will have working against him in free agency is his connection to draft-pick compensation, which he'll secure as soon as he rejects his qualifying offer

Otherwise, he has everything a team could ever want in a third baseman and franchise cornerstone.

                             

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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