The weird breakup between Rendon and Nats

When two people or a company and an individual cut ties, the fault is usually shared. Such was the case with star Washington Nationals infielder Anthony Rendon, who signed with the Los Angeles Angels.

This story was updated on Dec. 18, 2019.

When longtime Washington Nationals acclaimed outfielder Bryce Harper signed with the Philadelphia Phillies right before the 2019 season, many blamed the breakup mostly on Harper.

Harper had declined a reported 10-year, $300 million offer from the Nats — which included deferred money that reduces its value — to pursue the market as a free agent. After months of waiting, Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies. More money, many noted, although the average per year was less [though with deferred money it might be pretty close]. But by that time, the Nats had moved on, and Harper had few other options. The Nats went on to win the World Series without Harper after signing a few key players.

After the championship parade, star infielder Anthony Rendon hit the free agent market himself. He had declined a reported seven-year, $215 million offer from the Nats. The Los Angeles Angels reportedly offered Rendon $245 million over seven years, which with the differences between state taxes in California and Virginia was fairly close to what the Nats offered.

Rendon apparently was set on moving on from the Nats, despite the opportunity to defend the World Series title. Even with teammate Stephen Strasburg and others lobbying Rendon to re-sign with the Nats, he refused to budge. Such lobbying did not openly occur for Harper last year.

It didn’t seem like Rendon seriously considered settling in the Washington, D.C., family with his wife and young child. One reason could be related to his evangelical religion, some theorize. In the offseason, his family live in Houston, where Rendon grew up, and attend the Houston First Baptist Church. When asked after the World Series clinching win how he stays so calm and focused in big moments, Rendon told ESPN, “My savior, Jesus Christ, gives me that patience and that slow heart rate.”

In an introductory news conference, Rendon spoke about how Angels owner Arte Moreno made him feel “wanted” and the Angels displayed more of a “family atmosphere.” That was “one important thing that we always talked about trying to look for in an organization where we wanted to head to or stay at, was a family atmosphere, somewhere that we could plant our roots in, lay a foundation and just grow our family together,” he said.

Some pointed to the Nats’ former policy that forbid family members from traveling with the team on the plane. That was changed for the World Series after Rendon and others spoke out during a team meeting. But if that alone sparked Rendon’s exodus from the Nats, that looks fairly petty.

During the news conference, Rendon also stereotyped all Texans as Trump supporters in proclaiming his admiration for him. He criticized a supposed “Hollywood lifestyle” in explaining why he didn’t seriously consider the Dodgers. Like his shot at the Nats for a supposed lack of family atmosphere, those statements made little sense, adding to the weird breakup.

There is likely more to Rendon’s exit than a family policy. Perhaps he liked the better weather in southern California or that he didn’t have the pressure of being the face of the franchise with the Angels since Mike Trout holds that position. Or he didn’t face much pressure to win at all with the Angels, a team that hasn’t been close to making the playoffs since being swept in the first round in 2014.

Could Rendon, behind the humble religious exterior, have been upset over being overlooked by the Nats and MLB? He was the real National League MVP this season, but he finished third behind the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich. And he was more valuable to the Nats’ 2019 team than Harper was in 2015 when the latter won MVP.

Despite having three other seasons in which he received MVP consideration, Rendon only received his first All-Star Game nod this year. The Rockies’ Nolan Arenado has made the All-Star Game five times with a career BA barely above Rendon’s [.295 to .290] and a lower OPS+ [122 to 126], which adjusts for the differences in ballparks.

Rendon has not won a Gold Glove Award despite making difficult defensive plays at third base look easy. Arenado has won seven Gold Gloves at third, but his career fielding percentage of .971 is the same as Rendon’s.

On top of that, Rendon arguably deserved to win the Babe Ruth Award as the postseason MVP, or at least share the honor with Strasburg. He led the Nats in almost every offensive category in the playoffs, including OPS, batting average, extra-base hits, and RBI. For some reason, the New York chapter of baseball writers shared it between Strasburg and Juan Soto.

Soto, the 21-year-old phenom who was overlooked himself by the All-Star Game voters this year, actually deserved to share the World Series MVP with Strasburg more than the overall postseason award. In that big series, he led the Nats in OPS, batting average, home runs, hits, and runs scored. The writers got it wrong again.

But finally, MLB stepped up in early December, putting Rendon on its inaugural All-MLB first team, an honor that is more valuable than being named All-Star since it includes the entire season, not just half of it. He joined teammates Strasburg and Max Scherzer on the first team, while Soto made the second team.

Nats management could have done more in prior seasons to lobby MLB execs behind the scenes to get him a few Gold Gloves and other All-Star Game nods. Beneath his Texas-bred, laid-back personality, Rendon could have questioned the lack of honors. I also grew up in Texas with a similar laid-back personality, though I was not all that religious. I would be irked when others received recognition I thought I should have gotten. I never said anything, but that didn’t mean I didn’t take notice.

So when the Nats gave him the offer with deferred money and owner Mark Lerner said publicly the team couldn’t afford to sign both Strasburg and Rendon — a laughable statement since the team has increased by more than $1 billion in value since the owners bought it in 2006 — those were more indications of a lack of respect to Rendon. That he spoke about feeling wanted and respected in the introductory news conference with the Angels speaks volumes. None of the Angels’ money is deferred.

To show how good Rendon was this year, compare his stats to Harper’s MVP season. In 2015, Harper had 172 hits, 42 home runs, and 81 extra-base hits, but he only had 99 RBI. Rendon made more of his 174 hits, 34 home runs, and 81 extra-base hits count this year, leading all of MLB with 126 RBI. He had an outstanding 1.130 OPS with runners in scoring position and an amazing 1.313 OPS with RISP and two outs. Harper’s OPS in those clutch situations in 2015 was 1.023 and .957, respectively.

Somehow, Baseball Reference sabermetricians awarded Harper a Wins Above Replacement [bWAR] value — a subjective measure that supposedly records how much a player contributes to his team — in 2015 of 10.0. Fangraphs gave him an fWAR of 9.3. Unfortunately, that is the overriding stat that many writers use to choose MVPs these days.

Harper was not able to help an arguably better Nats team to the playoffs, as Rendon was in 2019. The 2015 team featured a rotation of Scherzer, Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Doug Fister. That was even better than this year’s Scherzer, Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, and Erick Fedde, though the 2015 staff underperformed. Harper didn’t have as much offensive help as Rendon, but the 2015 team still should have done better than a barely .500 record.

Anthony Rendon’s exit from the Nats was weird, to say the least. [Keith Allison photo, Creative Commons]

When Rendon was hurt and didn’t play, such as for about two weeks last spring, the Nats’ record was only 7–10. When Yelich was out due to injury, the Brewers’ record was 22–10. In games Bellinger didn’t play, the Dodgers were 6–0.

Another indication of value is how well the team does despite having fewer other really good hitters. Besides their MVP candidates, the Dodgers and Brewers each had five players with an on-base plus slugging [OPS] above .815. The Nats had three besides Rendon higher than that.

Rendon led all of baseball in RBI. He led the NL in doubles and was second in on-base percentage. Check out his stats compared with Bellinger and Yelich, as well as Harper in his MVP season [fWAR is from Fangraphs and bWAR from Baseball Reference]:

Player …. BA …. OPS ... RISP/OPS … Xbase hits ... RBI ... bWAR … fWAR
Rendon ... .319 ... 1.010 .… 1.130 ………… 81 …….. 126 ….. 6.3 …..… 7.0
Bellinger .. .305 ... 1.035 …. .989 ………… 84 …….. 115 …... 9.0 …….. 7.8
Yelich ..… .329 ... 1.100 ….. 1.155 …….… 76 ……… 97 ……. 7.1 ……. 7.8
Harper* .. .330 … 1.109 .… 1.023 …….…. 81 ……… 99 .…. 10.0 …... 9.3
* 2015

Rendon had a higher batting average and OPS with runners in scoring position, along with more RBI, than Bellinger. He had more extra-base hits and RBI than Yelich. He had more RBI, a higher OPS with RISP, and the same number of extra-base hits as Harper in 2015. His overall OPS isn’t that far off those three. Yet, his bWar is significantly lower than those three, showing how subjective that stat is.

Baseball writers who voted Bellinger and Yelich higher significantly undervalued Rendon. Most writers, including the D.C. ones who closely followed the Nats, chose the former two players over Rendon for MVP.

Only one, Tracy Ringolsby of Inside the Seams, picked Rendon first, and another, Bob Nightengale of USA Today, chose Rendon second. The latter two journalists better understood the criteria for MVP, which unlike honors such as the Hank Aaron Award and Gold Glove Award, should not be judged merely on stats. That criteria starts with the “actual value of a player to his team,” though voters have leeway to determine that value.

Three writers even picked Rendon fourth, and one — Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post — had him fifth. The perceived bias is another of many reasons why media members who cover teams should not be voting on these awards. The conflict of interest is reason number one, but it also puts sports journalists in a bad position with players and fans, especially when they know how they vote. A player could cut off access over such a vote, and that’s not a good position to confront.

There is no question that Rendon deserves more accolades and respect than he has received from MLB, the media, and even Nats owners. But it takes two to make any relationship work, and Rendon himself didn’t seem to want to take his with the Nats beyond this last magical season.

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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