WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A few weeks ago, during a pregame media session in West Palm Beach, Fla., Washington Nationals Manager Dusty Baker was asked to appraise what he had learned about Anthony Rendon, his easygoing starting third baseman with the unruly black locks, over the previous year. Baker praised nearly every aspect of Rendon’s skill set — his ability to hit anywhere in the order, his knack to generate power from his wrists, his surprising defensive consistency, his unanticipated speed — before concluding his evaluation with a declaration every player in the Nationals clubhouse, except for Rendon, would nod in agreement to.
“I think he’s highly underrated in this league, especially when everybody talks about the third basemen,” Baker said. “Those guys overshadow him. But, hey man, I’ll take what I got. He’s a ballplayer.”
The Nationals do not lack star power. Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, and Max Scherzer are among the most prominent names in baseball. Trea Turner appears on the verge. Daniel Murphy is arguably the best hitter in the sport. Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman are local fan favorites. Even Baker is about as outsize as a personality gets in the managerial ranks. Somewhere below them on the eminence barometer is Rendon, the smooth-fielding, doubles-dispersing reigning National League comeback player of the year who would rather talk about everything and everybody but himself because, frankly, he doesn’t think he’s worth much discussion.
“We’re out here playing a game and I’m not one to take it like super, super serious,” the 26-year-old Rendon said. “Obviously, I want to win, but at the same time, at the end of the day, it’s a game and that’s what I’m going to treat it as.”
The outlook is apparent in how Rendon, whose status for Opening Day on Monday against the Miami Marlins is unclear while he recovers from a bruised calf, carries himself on and off the field. Plenty of athletes avoid the media, but Rendon’s playful evasiveness is unmatched in the Nationals clubhouse. He would rather talk about the Houston Rockets and James Harden’s MVP case than what is happening on the diamond. “He thinks he’s in the NBA,” Zimmerman cracked about his teammate.
Rendon played more basketball than baseball growing up in Houston because finding enough kids in the neighborhood for a pickup baseball game was next to impossible, but his basketball career ended after high school. Here is Rendon’s scouting report from Rendon himself: not a very good dribbler despite his shorter stature but a lights-out shooter, and he didn’t mention defense. That is a skill set aptly suited for the Rockets.
“I could shoot,” said Rendon, who often works on his jump shot on a basket near the batting cages before games at Nationals Park. “I’d always just hang out at the three-point line and shoot. I’d get buckets.”
Rendon doesn’t hesitate to facetiously crow about his basketball talents. Getting him to talk about himself as a baseball player is another matter.
“People treat us and they put us on this pedestal like we’re so much better human beings than them because we play a professional sport,” Rendon said. “I’m the same person as you are. I just happen to know how to hit a baseball and throw a baseball. But I probably couldn’t go into somebody else’s job and be as good as they are but no one’s praising them about it. Just because we’re on TV they treat us different. It’s like, ‘I’m the same person as you. Don’t treat me different.’ ”
Turner, the other half of the left side of Washington’s infield defense, happens to be one of those people who puts Rendon on a pedestal.
“He’s my favorite player,” Turner said. “He makes baseball look easy. He looks like he’s not trying out there. If he wasn’t the player he is, I think you’d talk about him more. When he makes a diving play it’s just, ‘Oh, look, he made another diving play.’ Because he makes one, it seems like, every day. He quietly does a lot of things to help this team win.”
Rendon laughed when he heard Turner’s assessment because there was a time when his ability to make everything appear so effortless did not draw bewilderment, when his laid-back nature was not viewed as a positive. To some observers he was too relaxed. His chill attitude meant baseball wasn’t important to him.
“There was a backlash in college,” Rendon recalled. “They would say I was lazy. ‘Oh, he doesn’t work hard. He doesn’t want to be out there. He just looks lazy out there.’ ”
Rendon hasn’t changed much since his days playing college ball at Rice, where his so-called lethargy propelled him to become Baseball America’s freshman of the year, win three different national player of the year awards as a sophomore and get selected with the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft after overcoming a shoulder injury that limited him to playing designated hitter as a junior.
He still doesn’t do the rah-rah thing. Hyper still isn’t a word to describe him. He said he declined an invitation to play in the high-profile World Baseball Classic for Mexico (his father is of Mexican descent) because “it’s spring training. I wanted to kick it.”
“He’s a pretty quiet guy,” Zimmerman said. “Doesn’t really do anything to draw attention to himself that much. So when you do that, I don’t want to say he flies under the radar, but you can do what he does and not get as much pub as you should.”
Rendon soared through the minors and burst onto the scene in 2014, when he smacked 21 home runs and 39 doubles, posted a .824 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and compiled 6.6 wins above replacement on Baseball Reference’s scale, good for a fifth-place finish in the NL MVP vote. Injuries wrecked his 2015 campaign, but he bounced back last year following a rough start — after hitting two home runs with a .601 on-base-plus-slugging percentage through May 9, Rendon batted .287 with 18 home runs, 33 doubles, 80 RBI and an .859 OPS in 124 games over the remainder of the regular season.
“I don’t think too much changed over the course of the year,” Rendon said. “I felt like I was just finding holes during the second half. Shoot, I really don’t know. I mean, maybe trying to drive the ball a little more in the second half, but I feel like I just found holes.”
Rendon insisted he doesn’t have any on-field goals this season, but he set one for his volunteer work on the side at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, where he replaced Ian Desmond as the Nationals’ player ambassador and as a board member last season.
“I wasn’t as engaged last year as I probably should’ve been,” Rendon said. “I just let the grind of the season get the best of me. I’m going to make a more conscious effort visiting the kids more and being more active.”
Rendon sees himself in some of the kids, and he wants to show them there’s light at the end of the tunnel, to use baseball and the stature he believes he doesn’t deserve to open doors. Rendon knows those kids look up to him, even if he doesn’t take himself seriously.