Anthony Rendon Is an Angel on the Infield

Anthony Rendon is stoic on the field. Watching a Nationals game during his tenure, there was always opportunity to play a fun sub-game: watch Rendon for a grimace, or a sigh, or any indication that he was upset. You could go whole games without seeing it; he was simply out there working, staying in the moment, comfortable in himself and focused on the next pitch, the next ball to field, the next rally.

While it’s probably unfair to generalize a player’s on-field demeanor to their life, it’s a natural impulse. And so I can’t help picturing Rendon and his wife celebrating his new deal with a head nod, or perhaps a knowing smile, and a glass of wine on the patio. Staying in the moment; focusing on the next task at hand.

The next task is now teaming up with Mike Trout to win the World Series. The Angels signed Rendon to a seven-year, $245 million contract tonight, making him the third highest paid player in baseball on an annual basis, behind only Trout and Gerrit Cole (and tied with former teammate Stephen Strasburg, though without the deferral chicanery). The contract, first reported by Jon Heyman, is straightforward: seven years, $35 million each year, with a full no-trade clause and no opt outs.

No matter how you slice it, Rendon has been one of the best position players in baseball for the latter half of the decade. Since his injury-shortened 2015, he’s accumulated the fourth-most WAR among position players. In the last three years, he’s accumulated the fourth-most as well. In fact, he’s one of the best 10 position players in baseball over every stretch you can count back, starting with his rookie year:

Rendon’s Monotonic Brilliance
Since WAR Rank wRC+ Rank
2019 7.0 7 154 7
2018 13.2 5 147 7
2017 19.9 4 145 8
2016 24.2 4 136 17
2015 25.2 10 131 22
2014 31.6 6 131 25
2013 32.7 8 128 29

But calling Rendon consistent undersells the improvements he’s made at the plate. He’s always been a good hitter, but he’s transformed from a contact hitter early in his career to a power hitter, while improving his plate discipline along the way. Four years ago, Rendon was patient with enough power to keep pitchers honest. In 2019, he posted the fifth-highest slugging percentage in baseball while striking out less frequently than he had in any previous year.

Rendon reached base via walk or hit by pitch more times than he struck out in 2019, an achievement only five qualified hitters accomplished. It’s an impressive list, as befits an impressive feat:

Masters of Plate Discipline
Player BB+HBP K wRC+
Alex Bregman 128 83 168
Anthony Rizzo 98 86 141
Anthony Rendon 92 86 154
Mike Trout 126 120 180
Carlos Santana 111 108 135

Yes, eight intentional walks put him over the top, but only Bregman and Rizzo had more unintentional walks plus HBP’s than strikeouts.

At the same time, his contact quality has rocketed higher. Since the beginning of the Statcast era, he’s achieved better results, both realized and expected, in each successive year:

Better With Age
Year wOBACON Percentile xwOBACON Percentile
2015 0.343 31 0.36 56
2016 0.376 49 0.385 57
2017 0.41 69 0.388 57
2018 0.415 78 0.423 83
2019 0.445 79 0.445 85

How has he added this power on contact? In every possible way. He’s increased his launch angle, putting more balls in the air — in fact, in an earlier study this year, I found he was the player who benefited most from the increased liveliness of the baseball. He’s excellent at hitting balls at optimal launch angles (between 8 and 32 degrees), and he’s improved at that skill over the years. He’s hitting the ball harder, too — his hard-hit rate was a career high in 2019, as were his barrels per batted ball:

Harder, Better, Faster… Higher?
Year Launch Angle Sweet Spot% Barrels/BBE Hard Hit %
2015 10.0 33.5% 4.9% 32.7%
2016 16.9 35.8% 5.9% 36.5%
2017 17.7 35.2% 6.5% 34.3%
2018 18.0 39.8% 10.3% 37.8%
2019 19.5 38.7% 12.0% 44.7%

All of this is to say that present day Anthony Rendon is one of the absolute best hitters in baseball. He joins an Angels team that already boasts Trout, and surrounding those two with Shohei Ohtani, Justin Upton, and a band of competent hitters should make for a top-tier offense.

The Angels went 72-90 last year, but that record undersells their talent. They were beset by injuries and tragedy; Tyler Skaggs passed away during the season, Shohei Ohtani took the year off from pitching while rehabbing his elbow and was shut down in September, and Trout himself missed time and ended the year injured.

Our very early projections for 2020 already had the Angels as an 83.5 win team against neutral competition. This would leave them on the outside of the playoffs looking in, but Rendon vaults them into the Wild Card race immediately, even without any further pitching additions or depth hitters.

The oft-repeated trope that teams need to balance themselves between pitching and hitting isn’t true. Consider this: Rendon reaches base often and collects a lot of extra base hits. Putting Mike Trout in front of him in the lineup (I’d bat Rendon fourth and Trout second, but the configuration won’t matter much) is a way to increase the leverage of those at-bats, to maximize the number of runners Rendon can drive home. Offense stacks, and combining great hitters is an excellent way to maximize a free agent signing.

It’s not merely Rendon and Trout, either: Ohtani looks likely to bat between the two, and Jo Adell, our third-ranked prospect in all of baseball in last season, could be ready as soon as 2020 after torching Double-A in 2019, though he scuffled in a limited stint in Triple-A at the end of the year. The Angels offense should be dynamic, scoring enough runs to prop up a pitching staff that was poor in 2019 but should be better in 2020 with Ohtani and Dylan Bundy joining the rotation to complement a full season of Andrew Heaney.

Of course, the Angels aren’t signing Rendon just for 2020. His contract runs seven years, and he’ll be 36 by the time he reaches free agency again (or retires). Dan Szymborksi projected Rendon’s next seven seasons, and ZiPS isn’t as enamored with his long-term prospects as it was with Strasburg or Cole when they signed earlier this week:

ZiPS Projections – Anthony Rendon
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2020 .276 .363 .499 525 89 145 35 2 26 97 68 92 5 131 5 4.4
2021 .273 .359 .493 499 83 136 34 2 24 92 63 87 5 128 4 3.9
2022 .270 .356 .481 478 78 129 31 2 22 85 60 81 5 125 3 3.4
2023 .263 .347 .461 456 71 120 28 1 20 77 55 76 4 117 2 2.7
2024 .258 .339 .440 430 64 111 25 1 17 68 49 68 4 110 1 2.1
2025 .252 .329 .408 404 56 102 22 1 13 59 43 59 3 99 -1 1.2
2026 .245 .318 .387 375 48 92 18 1 11 50 36 51 2 91 -2 0.6
2027 .236 .301 .354 347 41 82 15 1 8 41 29 43 2 78 -4 -0.3

If this is Rendon’s future, the Angels will spend $13.4 million per win above replacement (assuming he is floored at zero in 2026). Apply Dan’s aging curve to Steamer’s initial 5.5 WAR projection for 2020, and the cost comes in around $9 million per win, in line with Cole’s and Strasburg’s contracts and projections.

To my eyes, that’s a reasonable takeaway from this contract. The Angels are acquiring a superstar near the peak of his powers. He’ll decline over time, as we all do; but one of the underrated benefits of being amazing now is that there’s plenty of room to decline while still being excellent. ZiPS might have the right of it at the end of the day; but I’d take the over on 4.4 WAR for Rendon next year, and his battle against recession should be an exciting one given his history of steadily improving his weaknesses until they are strengths.

It’s been a whirlwind week for Angels fans. Cole had been linked to the team since ascending to flaming-meteor-obliterating-batters stardom, having grown up in nearby Newport Beach. Strasburg was a longer shot, but also grew up in Southern California. When the team spent a prospect shedding Zack Cozart’s salary, they were widely assumed to be making room for Cole.

But if Rendon wasn’t the team’s primary target, he was certainly a well thought-out backup plan. Only 24 hours after Cole signed with the Yankees, Rendon and the Angels reached an agreement. There was nearly no time for fans to feel disappointment; shock at the Cole signing is now elation at signing the best hitter available.

The Angels have a national treasure playing for them in Mike Trout. It’s been frustrating to see the best player in baseball kept out of the playoffs for so much of his career. In signing Rendon, in competing for 2020, the Angels are doing baseball fans a great service, thrusting Trout — and Ohtani and Andrelton Simmons and lion in winter Albert Pujols — back into the playoff hunt.

But as much as this deal is about the Angels, it’s also about Rendon. Rendon has turned himself, bit by bit over time, from a role player to a star to a superstar, iterating and improving year after year. He’s amusing in his placidity on the field, a joy to watch at the plate and with the glove, and a sneakily great interview. The Angels offense, already packed with bright individual offensive talents, just added one of the brightest lights in the game. They’ll be among the most interesting teams to watch in 2020 — even if Rendon will never, ever frown or grimace.

We hoped you liked reading Anthony Rendon Is an Angel on the Infield by Ben Clemens!

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Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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CL1NT
Member
CL1NT

These Angels are going to be exciting in 2020! This offseason is the best!

tz
Member

Now they should seal the deal and get Keuchel. With that infield defense behind him, he could have some great numbers pitching for the Angels.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

I think the Angels should just lean into this. Sign Keuchel and Brett Anderson or Wade Miley this offseason, Stroman the next one, and McCullers the season after that. See if Clayton Richard is available on a minors contract. Mark Melancon is a free agent soonish, right? Think Brad Ziegler wants to come back? Why not? Let’s see how far we can push this.