#VoteRendon? Max Scherzer's favorite player has All-Star stuff

Even though he’s not an All-Star -- not yet anyway -- Anthony Rendon was there in spirit at the Washington Nationals' All-Star news conference Monday.

He was there on the backdrop behind the podium, where #VoteRendon was plastered across a plethora of video monitors. He was there on Max Scherzer's charcoal T-shirt, which featured an image of Rendon’s face and the words, “Anthony is my favorite player.” He was there when analytically inclined Daniel Murphy was asked why his teammate should win the Final Vote to determine the last NL All-Star.

Said Murphy: “Do you go to FanGraphs?”

Among the statistical tidbits, you’ll find at FanGraphs is this: Through the end of June, Rendon was one of four National League players with more walks than strikeouts. The other three were Buster Posey and Joey Votto, both of whom have won an MVP, and Anthony Rizzo, who hasn’t won an MVP yet but has finished top five in the voting each of the past two years. Whether Rendon has an MVP award in his future remains to be seen. For now, though, you could make a strong case that on a stacked Nats squad that has made a mockery of the NL Least thus far, he has been his team’s most valuable player.

Through the first three months of the season, Washington led the National League in pretty much every major offensive category, thanks in large part to a modern-day Murderers' Row that would make the '27 Yankees jealous. Three-hole hitter Bryce Harper is raking like he did when he won the 2015 MVP award. Cleanup man Ryan Zimmerman, having the best season of his career, is on the short list for the 2017 prize. Behind him is Murphy, who picked up right where he left off last year, when he finished second in the MVP balloting. But as important as those three have been to the Nats’ first-half success, their No. 6 hitter just might be the most dangerous.

"Do you go to FanGraphs?"
Daniel Murphy on teammate Anthony Rendon's All-Star credentials

To understand why, consider a late-June at-bat against the Cubs. With the defending champs leading 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh and a runner on first, Rendon stepped in to face Carl Edwards, a filthy right-handed reliever who came into the game having allowed just 13 hits in 31 innings. With the count even at two balls and two strikes, Edwards fired a 95 mph fastball just off the outside edge of the plate. The perfect pitcher's pitch, Rendon spoiled it with a last-second flick of the wrists, fouling it off sharply to the right side. Edwards then delivered a 96 mph heater just above the top of the zone, which Rendon fouled straight back. After taking a curve that bounced in the dirt to run the count full, Rendon pounced on the eighth pitch of the at-bat -- another helping of cheese at 96 -- and crushed it to deep left-center, where it landed 416 feet away to give the Nats a 3-2 lead. It was the kind of never-say-die fight that folks in and around D.C. have come to expect from Rendon.

“He’s my guy,” hitting coach Rick Schu said. “If the World Series is on the line and you need a knock and somebody to grind out an AB, he’s my guy.”

Mind you, the Nationals -- who have lost in the first round three times in three postseason appearances -- are still searching for their first Fall Classic appearance. But if they happen to make it that far this year, Rendon will undoubtedly be a big reason.

A former first-round pick out of Rice University, the 27-year-old third baseman already has accounted for 3.7 WAR (according to Murphy’s favorite website), tops among all third basemen and second-best of any National Leaguer behind Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt. To be sure, part of Rendon’s value comes from his steady play at the hot corner, where his seven defensive runs saved ranks third at the position in the NL and fourth in the majors. But the bulk of his bang comes at bat, where he has become one of baseball’s toughest outs.

“I just try to make the pitcher work,” said Rendon, who in May had a 14-pitch battle royale against Braves knuckleballer R.A. Dickey that ended in a walk and is tied for the longest plate appearance in the National League this year.

This season, he’s averaging 4.50 pitches per plate appearance, most in the majors. His ability to outlast opposing hurlers comes from lightning-quick hands combined with micro-focused work in the batting cage. On any given day, Rendon will take 20 to 25 swings off the tee. Of those, almost half are balls that he places just outside the strike zone, about 3 inches off the black (the diameter of one baseball). Sometimes he focuses on up-and-in, other times it’s down-and-away, replicating the locations he’s most likely to see in two-strike counts.

“That’s a common theme for pitchers,” he said.

The common theme for Rendon is quality at-bats that last so long, his teammates have had to completely recalibrate their in-game clocks. Catcher Matt Wieters, who played the first eight years of his career in Baltimore, now bats behind Rendon in Washington. With the Orioles, Wieters used to spend the first three pitches in the on-deck circle swinging a weighted bat. Prior to the fourth pitch, he’d ditch the lead pipe and pick up his regular lumber to get ready for his turn. But in D.C., with Rendon hitting in front of him, he quickly realized that changing sticks after three pitches was jumping the gun.

“I was picking up my regular bat and not doing anything with it for a while,” Wieters said, “so now I go four pitches. But it’s a good problem to have.”

It’s a lot better than the problem the former Baltimore backstop used to have with respect to Rendon.

“I’ve had to try to call pitches against him, and it’s tough finding the pitch that’s a go-zone to him.”

Recently, it has become even tougher.

Because Rendon’s hands are so fast and his swing so compact, hurlers have typically shied away from challenging him inside with pitches that other hitters might have trouble getting to. In fact, 53 percent of the offerings Rendon has seen this year have been on the outer portion of the zone, the second-highest mark among right-handed hitters in the NL. So in the middle of May, prior to a three-game series in Atlanta, Schu suggested his charge move nearer to the plate. That way, those balls on the outer half would be that much closer to his barrel, a little easier to pull. Says Schu: “He can do more damage.”

More damage is exactly what Rendon has been doing. In his first game after leaving Atlanta, the pathologically soft-spoken slugger carried a big stick, homering twice against Seattle. He followed that up by going deep in each of the next two games against the Mariners. After hitting five homers in his first 41 games this season, Rendon has gone yard 11 times in his past 36 contests. His 1.117 OPS since May 23 ranks second in the National League. Perhaps most impressively, he has been able to do it all without abandoning his preternatural patience.

“He just seems so laid-back, so relaxed in the box,” said Cubs third baseman and reigning MVP Kris Bryant, who saw Rendon collect six hits during Washington’s series against Chicago. “A lot of borderline pitches, he’s taking with ease and just watching them go. Everything’s coming easy to him.”

The one thing that’s not coming easy for Rendon? A trip to the All-Star Game. Despite his standout season, when the rosters for the Midsummer Classic were announced, the Nats third baseman found himself on the outside looking in at a loaded position at which Colorado's Nolan Arenado got the starting nod and Arizona’s Jake Lamb was named the reserve. As a result, he didn’t get an invite to Monday’s All-Star news conference in D.C.

“It's really hard for me to swallow that he's not up here at the table right now,” said Scherzer, rocking his Rendon tee. “I just think he's had that type of year. He's one of the best third basemen in the game, if not the best right now. So it's really hard for me to sit here and tell you that he doesn't deserve to go."

Whether the fans think Rendon deserves to go remains to be seen. Along with Bryant, he’s one of five players vying for the final NL roster spot. Voted on by the public, the results will be announced once balloting concludes Thursday afternoon. In the meantime, Rendon can only sit back and be patient.

Fortunately for him, he’s pretty good at that.