Bryce Harper and Manny Machado might both play elsewhere next season. The future of Beltway baseball will start a new chapter when they do. But for all the talk about Harper and Machado, the gems of this winter’s loaded free agent class, two of the more talked-about players of the last half decade, neither man leads the Baltimore-Washington area in Wins Above Replacement over the last three seasons.
That honor belongs to Anthony Rendon, whose three-run homer in the third inning of Monday’s Memorial Day matinee propelled his Nationals to a 6-0 win. They are 30-22 now, eight games over .500 for the first time all season, rocketing back into the league’s elite as the Orioles (17-37) plummet helplessly away.
Rendon, attention averse, Houston Rockets obsessed, falls into the afterthought category on this roster. When people talk about the Nationals, they talk about Harper, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and others. But Rendon is as big a star as any of them, at least in terms of production, and after missing a month of the season with a broken toe, he is starting to hit like it again. He is batting .375 with two homers and four doubles in his last six games.
“I think you just go through spells — it’s a freakin’ 162-game season — and it gets monotonous going to the cage and taking groundballs,” Rendon said. “So I’m just trying to be intentional about things each and every day. It can be a struggle at times. Just trying to be intentional.”
That struggle makes Rendon’s performance over the last few seasons more impressive, particularly as hitters around him — Harper, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Eaton — have battled injuries and streakiness that Rendon has largely avoided. Since the start of the 2016 season, he has played more games than any of those players. He has accumulated more Wins Above Replacement (12.2, according to FanGraphs) than any of them. Only Harper has driven in more runs in that span. None of them has been as consistent as the third baseman.
“If you watch him play, his patience. For the most part, he swings at strikes, gets the ball in the strike zone. He doesn’t really miss,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “And he’s comfortable hitting with two strikes. With that combination, he gives himself a good chance to hit.”
Rendon contributed to four of the Nationals’ six runs in Monday’s win, which turned into a blowout late when the Nationals added three more runs in the eighth. Juan Soto, who said he watches Harper’s and Rendon’s pitch selection to inform his own, also finished with two hits. He is hitting .320.
But everyone is talking about Soto these days, just as everyone talks about Scherzer and Strasburg and the high-profile Nationals starters. After Monday, Gio Gonzalez owns the best ERA of them all.
He threw 114 pitches over 7⅔ scoreless innings in which he dropped his ERA to 2.10 — sixth lowest among major league starters. He outpitched Orioles starter Alex Cobb, whom Baltimore signed to a four-year deal worth $60 million this winter — a winter that was not kind to most other pitchers. Gonzalez is in the final year of what options made a seven-year deal worth $65 million.
He has won 85 games and pitched to a 3.43 ERA in his time as a National. Since the start of the 2017 season, one left-handed starter has a lower ERA than Gonzalez: Clayton Kershaw. Through 11 starts, Gonzalez owns a 2.10 ERA. Scherzer’s is 2.13. Scherzer’s fastball sits at 95 mph. Gonzalez’s sits around 88.
“You have guys who throw in the mid-90s, then you have [Jeremy Hellickson] and I just trying to get that strike zone,” Gonzalez said. “It’s good to see that kind of stuff.”
The Orioles and their star, Machado, provide a perfect foil to the Nationals’ roster, which can carry Harper when he can’t carry them, and is built around unsung heroes who might be sung about far more somewhere else. Entering Monday, Machado had accumulated 2.6 WAR, among the top 10 in the majors, elite star stuff. Baltimore as a team had a combined WAR of 1.2, meaning the rest of his teammates were playing worse than replacement players might.
But even as the Nationals’ star, Harper, has struggled — he is hitting .228 after going 0 for 2 with two walks Monday — the Nationals have not stumbled around him. Rendon is worth more than one WAR alone. Gonzalez has been one of the best left-handed starters in baseball over the last five seasons, and he remains the consensus third-best starter on his own team.
After a perilous and injury-riddled April, the Nationals are 17-6 in May, have won six of their last seven games, and are one game out of first in the National League East. Their biggest stars have helped. Like they did Monday, their quiet stalwarts have carried them through.
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