Saturday morning, my fellow Beyond the Box Score editor Ryan Romano pointed out that Nationals’ infielder Anthony Rendon has one of the highest hard-hit rates in baseball, while at the same time, has hit for below average power (.158 ISO) with a pedestrian .298 BABIP. The latter statristic fluctuates a lot, but one might assume that a player who hits the ball really hard would either 1) have a high batting average on balls in play, or 2) would have a depressed BABIP due to hitting home runs.
However, in Rendon’s case, neither is true — his BABIP is subpar, and low power numbers mean he isn’t hitting a ton of home runs. Noticing this, I thought it might prudent to see whether FanGraphs’ Hard-Hit rate actually correlates with one or both of BABIP and ISO.
Using a sample of 2016 batters with at least 300 plate appearances, it was quickly apparent that very little of BABIP is determined by Hard-Hit rate (r-squared of .02). However, there is a much stronger relationship between Hard-Hit rate and ISO, with an r-squared value of .55.
In the above chart, it is obvious that Rendon comes in below where this simple linear model expects he’d perform. In fact, he does have one of the highest residuals of any player in the sample.
So, does this mean we should be waiting for a massive breakout of the under performing Anthony Rendon? No, not based on this information. Look at the other names on this list — Adeiny Hechavarria has never been a league average hitter, Joey Votto is an aging first baseman on pace for the (still productive, but) worst season of his career, and everyone else is a aging veteran fighting a speckled injury history. These are all players who clearly still have a good eye and can put the bat on the ball, but whose age and injuries are stealing their power production. Maybe they’re sacrificing loft in their swing while preserving exit velocity, or maybe they’ve been sapped of their speed, and the ability to take borderline extra bases.
Being in the company of a lot of aging, injured up-the-middle players might be a frightening sign for a young player like Rendon, who’s notably battled leg injuries throughout his young career. At least in 2016, he has appeared in all but two of the Nationals’ games. Hopefully, the injury bug is under control at this point; it is still something to be cognizant of moving forward, though.
A lot of different factors combine to create a good hitter, and hitting the ball hard is a productive yet incomplete step in that direction. In Rendon’s case, he may hit balls hard on average, but the direction and angle those balls often take are problematic.
It turns out that a large number of the balls Rendon hits hard are groundballs, and per Baseball Savant, he actually has the fifth-highest average exit velocity on grounders. That’s good. However, he also features less-than-exciting fly ball peripherals; namely, appearing among the lowest quartile of MLB hitters in average exit velocity and distance, while placing among the highest quartile for average launch angle. When he hits fly balls, they’re slower than average and at a high angle, leading to shorter distances and more easily fielded batted balls.
It does appear that Rendon, like a lot of hitters, targets balls down-and-in. However, Rendon hasn’t even generated a single batted ball in large swaths of the top of the strike zone.
Rendon draws a lot of walks and generally has good plate discipline, so this is potentially a conscious effort to not swing through a bunch of high fastballs. But, as a result, those pitches are also not being squared up and hit out of the park when left too much over the zone.
As long as Rendon is actually healthy, he’s certainly an everyday player. He walks a lot, and by frequently hitting to all fields, he completely avoids the shift. Defensive metrics like him, he is a smart baserunner, and he does still compile a decent number of extra base hits. That’s a really well-rounded profile and above -average player in the infield, and if he keeps all of those things up, he doesn’t need to be a slugger.
Given his prospect pedigree and the results he experienced during his breakout 2014 season, it is always possible he retools his swing or changes his approach in a way that adds power. However, based on his current profile, his high Hard-Hit rate alone is not sufficient a reason to expect increased power in the future.
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