Aug 29, 2014; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon (6) hits a home run against the Seattle Mariners during the first inning at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Is Rendon a Legitimate MVP Candidate?

Anthony Rendon won’t win the NL MVP. He couldn’t even win a fan vote to be included on the All Star team, so his finishing the season as the NL’s most valuable is as improbable as the Nats having a single 20-game winner. I’d be surprised if Rendon cracks the top ten, which isn’t an indictment on his play but more an observation of his disparate contributions across the various statistical categories. In other words, he doesn’t really dominate any one category but shows pretty well across the board.

If ever there was a year that Rendon could win MVP, isn’t this the one? Clayton Kershaw is the popular choice at the moment, but voters have been hesitant to hand the award to a pitcher, even if he has been otherworldly, and considering Kershaw missed a month to start the season, would a partial season of dominance do the trick? Troy Tulowitzki is out for the season; Andrew McCutchen had a DL stint sap his numbers; Giancarlo Stanton plays for a team that won’t sniff postseason contention; and Jason Heyward derives much of his value from his defense, which is a tricky enough thing to quantify. Putting it that way, doesn’t a case for Rendon seem, if not probable, at least possible?

Building the MVP Case

In many ways, trying to sell Rendon as a legitimate MVP candidate is like arguing for Hunter Pence. Neither player leads the league in the traditional statistics such as batting average, home runs, or RBIs, but each gets on base at a reasonable clip, swipes a few bags, and scores an abundance of runs. If Pence has scored a few runs more than Rendon, Rendon has driven in a few more than Pence. In fact, making a case for one is like making a case for the other except Rendon has played a more demanding defensive position in third base and played in extremely well. Considering Rendon has moved between second and third throughout the season, it’s remarkable that he currently ranks first in putouts in the NL for third basemen and second in double-plays turned.

Offensively, his numbers don’t jump out at you except in the breadth of how exceptional he’s been overall. While he’s currently just 18th in the NL in home runs, he’s fifth in doubles, tied for 10th in triples, third in both extra base hits and total bases, and second in runs scored. He sits 15th in the NL with 15 stolen bases, but he’s been caught just once, making his 93.75% for stolen bases good for second in the league. Oh, and just for fun, he’s 14th in RBIs with 73, and all of this has been done playing in a lineup that’s been decimated with injuries throughout the season with the man hitting behind him, Jayson Werth, batting just .259/.335/.328 with two home runs in May and June, and the man hitting in front of him, Denard Span, struggling to keep his OBP above .300 through mid-May and batting .268/.308/.389 by June 27.

In May it looked as though the NL pitchers had made the necessary adjustments while Rendon had difficult adapting. Rendon saw fewer pitches on the inner half of the plate as pitchers began to attack him with fastballs away. Consequently, he had the worst month of the season batting just .212/.292/.323. His batting average on pitches categorized as hard (cutters, fourseam fastballs, etc.) dropped from .333 through April to just .206 in May. His BABIP dropped from .364 to .228 on pitches defined as hard and from .344 to .235 overall. Telling in those numbers is that Rendon’s grounders increased in May (to nearly 50% of batted balls), his line drive percentage plummeted, and his offense suffered.

Rendon adjusted, has seen his numbers stabilize, and since May he’s hit .283/.343/.476 with 24 doubles and 12 home runs. Edwin Encarnacion might call hitting 12 home runs a month, but for Rendon that’s precisely half a season of games where he’s swiped 12 bags, scored 63 runs and driven in another 46. I call that impressive.

By fWAR, Rendon is eighth in the NL, seventh for position players, and by bWAR he’s ranked eighth for position players. He’s not setting any precedent for the numbers he’s produced for a player his age, and he won’t finish 20/20. What he has done, though, has moved his name into the discussion as a legitimate MVP candidate by just playing the way he has through the end of September. He doesn’t have to go on a Werthian July tear to legitimize his claim, but seeing him destroy baseballs and lead the Nationals triumphantly into the postseason would give the voters something to think about.

Will it happen? Without there being one clear cut candidate for MVP this year, there’s at least an argument to be made, but I don’t see it happening. In another year of suppressed offense, with the discussion all year about how scoring is down, strikeouts are up, and shutouts are accumulating at an unprecedented pace, doesn’t it seem like a batter winning the MVP would be silly anyway? Maybe it’s fitting that Kershaw takes off a month, has an amazing partial year, and sweeps the awards.

While Rendon won’t win, I think it’s important to remind everyone of just how good he’s been this season.

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