Anthony Rendon Is Doing His Own Thing

After talking recently with Daniel Murphy about launch angles and the like, I walked over to one of my brethren in hair Anthony Rendon and asked for some of his time. “I’m probably the worst person to talk to about this,” said the Nationals third baseman, already laughing. “Worst person ever!” added his next door neighbor Trea Turner. “I change strictly off of feel. Trying to talk to me about this launch-angle stuff…” Rendon said, gesturing with a wave towards Murphy. “I’m going off feel.”

That’s fine. For hitters, sometimes the best means to changing mechanically is simply to change the intention and focus on a different part of the field, like Yonder Alonso did. Very specific cues and jargon-laden research? Those are for the heady few.

But Rendon is a little different for another reason. While other batters are swinging for the fences and changing their approach radically, Rendon has achieved more power this year by adjusting in a very subtle way that allows him to make more of his level swing.

“I changed my toe hole, I know that,” said the slugger when I asked if he had moved closer to the plate. Moving the hole he made with his back foot as he dug in at the plate wasn’t a decision over which he labored. “Eh, I’ll just go over here a little bit,” is how he described moving closer to the plate a few inches and then back a couple inches.

But the move did help augment a strength for him: getting to pitches out and over the plate. Or maybe it was a reaction to an adjustment that pitchers were making. Check out, for example, how many more high fastballs Rendon is seeing early this season. That’s 2016 on the left and 2017 on the right.

And now look at his isolated slugging percentage on those pitches this year. By moving back and closer to the plate, he’s been able to attack pitchers where they’re attempting to attack him.

“Everyone pretty much is good at up and out,” suggested Rendon. “You see it best and it’s up, so it’s easier to get to.” Now it’s even easier to get to, as he’s closer to the ball out and over the plate. But we also know that the high pitch is a weakness for those with steep attack angles. Rendon has a flatter swing, one that results in an average launch angle of 14.3 degrees, good for 105th highest out of 380.

Getting closer may help Rendon hit the up and away pitch far, but moving back was about countering pitchers as they attempt to attack a weakness. “If a righty dives, we sell ourselves short inside,” he pointed out. “So if I’m getting crowded, and I’m hitting the ball late and deep, let me scoot back, and so on the same swing, instead of hitting here [on the handle] and fouling it off, I’m hitting it closer to the barrel and hitting into right field.”

He also does hitting work to try and counter this weakness. “I’ll do a high tee, up and in off the plate, so I have to keep my hands inside the ball and shorten up to try to hit the ball up the middle,” Rendon explained. “I’m not trying to hit a home run off that pitch. Everyone growing up, we all grew up trying to hit home runs. The normal reaction is to try to pull the ball. You’re not going to have a problem pulling the ball.”

Look back at that fastball heat map to Rendon at the top, and you’ll see that pitchers are throwing him more four-seam fastballs both in and up in the zone. He did something as simple as moving his toe hole, and he’s not worried if anyone notices. “Some guys watch your toe hole, some don’t,” he exclaimed, and expressed a willingness to make a change like this again in the future.

You can see why Rendon thought maybe he wouldn’t be a great interview, and that self-awareness came up a few times. “I just try to stay short, and try to barrel the ball. Not being trying to be a jerk or anything, I just try to stay short and get it on the barrel, and I’ll have the best opportunity to get a hit,” he relayed to me, almost apologizing for having a simple approach.

He shouldn’t. If his feel for the game is good enough to help him find this simple two-inch by two-inch change in toe holes as a response to how pitchers have changed their method of attack, he’s well tuned to the best approach for his own skills.

In other words, he’s performing like a top-five third baseman, whatever your metric right now. And change isn’t imminent, not for the moment. “Just trying to ride that wave while you’re doing well,” he said. “Just stay the same, whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it.”

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Always love me some Tony Two-Bags