The National League MVP race is bound to be a weird one. There are at least a half-dozen players who can realistically win the award: Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Corey Seager, Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper, Charlie Blackmon, just to name a few. No player has pulled themselves away from the pack with a month to go.
Despite the big names mentioned above, no player has been as numerically valuable and important to a winning team as third baseman Anthony Rendon has been to the Washington Nationals. As of August 28th, he's the NL leader in FanGraphs’ wins above replacement.
On the surface, Rendon’s offensive numbers do not match up with his competitors. He has hit just 22 home runs, which is tied for 24th in the National League. While that number is nothing to scoff at, it pales in comparison to the home run numbers of Stanton, Votto, etc. His runs scored and RBIs create an even worse comparison. But traditional statistics won’t be what wins Rendon an MVP award.
Rendon generates his offensive value through excellent plate discipline, elite slugging numbers despite not being a prototypical power hitter, and solid baserunning.
Rendon has the fifth-best walk to strikeout ratio in the league at 0.97, behind just Votto, Justin Turner, Buster Posey, and Anthony Rizzo. He maintains his outstanding plate discipline skills by avoiding pitches outside the zone and making consistent contact at near league-best rates. He has swung at just 21.6 percent of pitches outside of the zone this year, which is tenth-best in baseball. When he does swing, he makes contact 87.7 percent of the time, which is eighth-best in the league. His 5 percent swinging strike rate is bested by only Joe Mauer, DJ LeMahieu, Joe Panik, and Denard Span, all of whom have a slugging percentage below .420. Rendon's is .539.
Rendon has consistently displayed a high batting average on balls in play throughout his career. His career BABIP is .311; the league BABIP has hovered at or below .300 since 2013. He's doing it again this year by posting one of the best soft contact percentages in the league — he ranks twelfth in the National League, making soft contact just 13.1 percent of the time. By hitting the ball hard, he is piling up a ton of doubles. He's hit 32 so far, which is fourth-best in the National League. His high BABIP, and subsequent high batting average, along with his doubles total, explains why he ranks 12th in the NL in slugging despite being 24th in home runs.
Rendon's hitting is complemented by above-average base running, making him one of the most complete offensive players in baseball. He is above-average in terms of both avoiding double plays and stealing bases, according to FanGraphs. He is eighth-best in baseball in Double Play Runs. Baseball Prospectus rates Rendon as above average in ground ball advancement rate, stolen base runs, fly ball advancement rate, and hit advancement rate. In other words, he's always looking to take an extra base.
Rendon's 28.6 offensive runs above average, which combines both hitting and baserunning, is 13th in baseball and 10th in the National League. That's a place most players in baseball would love to rank, but it's hardly MVP-worthy.
His world-class defense at third base is what pushes him to the top of the conversation and the WAR leaderboard. Rendon's 13.8 defensive runs above average is fourth-best in baseball, and second-best among infielders being Andrelton Simmons. He has nine defensive runs saved, which ranks fourth among third basemen. He has the highest UZR among third basemen at 12.0; Nolan Arenado is second-best with 6.0.
Although each of his MVP competitors will likely end up with better offensive numbers, none of them can match up to Rendon's defensive output.
Not only does he have the individual performance on his side, but he also has the team narrative and success going for him also. The Nationals have been comfortably on top of the National League since early-April despite dealing with injuries up and down their roster. Trea Turner suffered a broken wrist on June 30th and has yet to return. Stephen Strasburg has been limited to just twenty-two starts due to an elbow injury in late June. Jayson Werth has played in just 48 games. Adam Eaton was lost for the season on April 29th. Koda Glover, who was hailed as the Nationals closer of the future, went out with a shoulder and back injury in June. Max Scherzer and Ryan Madsen have recently hit the disabled list. Perhaps one of Rendon's strongest competitors for the MVP award, Bryce Harper, was lost two weeks ago to injury due to a hyperextended knee and has yet to return.
Rendon has been one of the few constants on an injury-riddled, first-place team. If he can hold this level of production through September, it will be impossible for voters to ignore such a central piece to one of the best teams in baseball.
Dylan Svoboda is a writer for Beyond The Box Score and BP Milwaukee. You can follow him on Twitter at @svodylan.