If there was one position in the fantasy baseball landscape that wasn’t begging for another star-caliber player to join its ranks, it’s third base. Although it hasn’t been the deepest position always on the diamond, the first round in recent drafts has been littered with players at the hot corner. Just this past spring, the first round of a 12-team draft often had four third basemen taken. Those four were Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado and Josh Donaldson, and the first three were all at risk of being off the board in the first half of the first round. It is, to put it simply, a loaded group of players. None of them look like they are falling too far in drafts in early looks to next year, either. (Machado hasn’t quite been himself, but we all see him being just fine.) They better make room for another star at their position, though, as there could be another stud emerging in 2017.
Anthony Rendon was certainly not hated coming into this season. He was seen as a solid player who would be a contributor on fantasy rosters. In my opinion, he was the best non-elite option, but even I never saw him as joining the upper echelon of players at this top-heavy position. Rendon was seen as having health problems, and as someone who was good at a lot of things but didn’t quite have any one great carrying tool. Because of that view, he was only being selected as the No. 9 third baseman in NFBC drafts and was being selected in the seventh round of those 15-team leagues at 94th overall.
Those who took the dive on Rendon around that area of the draft have seen their investment pay off in a major way. Through the first 364 plate appearances of his season, the 27-year-old is hitting .318/.423/.593 with 20 home runs, 51 runs, 64 RBIs, and 5 SB. He also has posted a .341 TAv, which ranks him as the fifth-best overall hitter in the game among those with at least 250 plate appearances. In terms of fantasy value, he has unsurprisingly outperformed those preseason draft positions. He currently ranks 25th overall, 17th among batters and 4th among third basemen on ESPN’s Player Rater. It’s not just that he’s been playing extremely well, either. Rendon has made some significant tweaks in his game that make this kind of performance seem more sustainable than his jump in rank among his peers might suggest.
The first thing you notice when you take a slightly deeper dive into Rendon is his plate discipline. He has never been a player with a poor understanding of the strike zone, but in 2017 he has gone from good plate discipline to elite. He is walking more than he strikes out with a nearly 15 percent walk rate and a strikeout rate just under 14 percent. Compared to 2016, he has seen a 5 percentage point increase in walk rate and a 5 percentage point decrease in strikeout rate. That’s… that’s very good. Unsurprisingly, he has seen a drop in swinging-strike rate. It gets even better when you discover that, while Rendon is swinging about as often as he always had, the quality of the pitches at which he swings has improved. Currently, his swing rate at pitches in the zone is up by 5 percentage points over his career rate and his swing rate on pitchers out of the zone is down by 6 percentage points. Assuming he can keep this kind of plate discipline going, Rendon should continue to make plenty of contact and get on base at a high rate, giving the powerful Nationals lineup more chances to drive him in.
Another side effect of his better understanding of the strike zone is quality of contact, and that has also been shown off in 2017. Rendon is already just one home run shy of his career-high and his current .275 ISO would be 89 points higher than his previous career-high. Surely, some of this can be explained by whatever would explain the huge power surge across the whole league, but Rendon personally has something to do with it, too. A big part of it is simply that he is swinging more at pitches in the zone and making more contact on those hittable pitches. Additionally, he made a big adjustment last year to hit the ball in the air more, cutting his ground-ball rate by about 10 percentage points. He’s kept that adjustment in his game into this season, and it leads to many more balls over the fence and in for extra bases.
The one argument you heard a lot about Rendon earlier in the year was that his numbers were boosted by one great game at the end of April when he had three home runs, five runs scored and 10 RBIs. Obviously, that would help anyone but the reality is that this was just the start of a months-long run. He finished April with an OPS below .800, but since then he hasn’t had a month with an OPS below 1.000.
In the end, Rendon probably won’t be mentioned among the Machados, Bryants and Arenados of the world next season, and that’s OK. This is his first great season, and there’s always reason to doubt any player’s jump into superstardom. Keep an eye on how he’s discussed for the rest of this season, though. If people continue to underestimate not only how great he’s been but how much he’s improved at the little things to put up these big numbers, he could be a steal yet again in 2018.