From the stands, Anthony Rendon looks like a happy Little Leaguer, barely able to hide a grin after finding a way to sneak onto a big league field. If he catches a popup, he sneaks a sheepish look at Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche, who always gives him the greasy eyeball because he has dropped a couple. When he comes to the plate, he looks so relaxed he seems to have forgotten it’s no longer batting practice. But maybe it still is for him. His swing, with his hands starting high, but relaxed, looks languid, like he’ll never get to the ball in time. Then, in a flash, the line drives start — left field line, right field line, up the gaps and back through the box.
Very few, except other ballplayers, seem to get Rendon at first glance. Listed at 6 feet and 195 pounds, but probably smaller, he doesn’t grab your eye, but once you’ve spotted him, you’re caught. The mullet haircut, a rookie prank, makes Rendon look mischievous, not something as serious a “natural hitter,” someone that other players analyze, even though he is only 23 and hasn’t proved anything yet.
But Rendon is probably different. It’s looks like he may have the trick of it, this baseball gimmick called hitting.
In both baseball and golf, you can’t see the barrel of the bat or the face of the club when it is behind you and above your head. You are helpless to see your mistakes at the most vulnerable instant before you swing. How do you “sense” the sweet spot of the bat or the exact center of the golf club for the pure strike? How do you deliver that ideal spot squarely to the ball?
Those who are taught early to sense the position of the bat’s sweet spot when it is behind them, out of sight, but not out of control, have an edge. If they also have exceptional hand-eye coordination they may be special.
By age 3, Rendon was hitting a tiny ball with a little bat. Later, he and his brother used a slender “tent stick.” By 10, he’d met the only hitting coach he’s ever had. “Willie Ansley. He was the Astros’ No. 1 draft pick in ’88,” says Rendon, who’s from Houston, proudly. Rendon ended up the No. 6 pick in the draft 25 years later, just one spot better than Ansley, who never got past Class AAA.
What was Ansley’s main teaching point? “As long as you know where the barrel is, you can hit,” Rendon said Thursday afternoon. When was the last time the two talked? “A few minutes ago on the phone,” he said.
In his first at-bat on Thursday, Rendon faced Arizona’s Patrick Corbin, a left-hander who came in with a 9-0 record and 2.22 ERA, a pitcher Rendon had never before seen. Corbin started with a 93 mph fastball that Rendon fouled back, followed by a slider at his feet. Then, showing all of his main pitches in his first three offerings, Corbin threw a change-up low and away. Rendon seemed slightly off-balance, out in front as he swung, yet he delivered the center of the bat barrel directly to the ball, scorching a line drive up the left field gap. He was robbed of a double by a diving catch. In his 100th major league at-bat, Rendon’s batting average sank to .350.
A team suffering from high expectations needs the unexpected. That’s what Rendon has been to the Nats, a surprise, a boost that has arrived at least a season ahead of schedule.
From the moment he signed for $7.2 million after breaking most of Lance Berkman’s records at Rice, the Nats assumed Rendon, if he stopped getting injured, could be a star of their future, in a season and at a position to be determined. After Danny Espinosa’s season disintegrated, Rendon suddenly switched from his natural position of third base to become the second baseman of the present and maybe future, too.
No one thinks he’ll hit .337, but everyone wonders exactly what that eventual number will be. So far, at five pro levels over two seasons, he’s hitting .306/.410/.538 for a stellar .948 on-base-plus-slugging average.
“Anthony’s got some really good hand-eye coordination. He doesn’t have a typical conventional swing. It’s as fluid and effortless as it gets,” LaRoche said. “For a guy that’s not huge, he really been backing up the baseball. That’s what hitters say when its almost like you keep hitting the ball after you’ve made contact. It comes out of nowhere. Your bat stays in the strike zone a long time. That’s when the ball goes a long way.
“Rendon keeps the bat through the zone for probably two feet where a lot of hitters are in-and-out of the [hitting] zone in a foot,” LaRoche added. “He’s got that loose-wrist pop, too. All of that together is why he can hit the ball as far as guys 50 pounds bigger.”
The big leagues are full of hot-shot hitters who get figured out. Last year, Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks was supposedly a future star; now, after hitting .192 this season, he’s back at Pawtucket. On Thursday, Rendon would probably have gone 2 for 5 in the minors. But big leaguers robbed him twice, once of an infield hit, for a 0 for 5 in a 3-2 loss to Arizona. The process of Rendon learning the league while it learns him has just begun. As soon as you mention his name, discussion of hitting theory follows quickly.
“I like his wrist action. He throws the bat head. When he goes the other way [to advance a runner from second base], he doesn’t drag the bat through the zone. It’s a quick swing. Both hands are working — pull [with the left] and release [with the right] at the same time,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Twice he’s hit the ball so hard that the man couldn’t score from second.
“He’s real quiet at the plate. His pitch analysis is really good. He reads what type of pitch it is early,” said Johnson. “They’re going to try to pitch him in to speed him up so they can go soft away. That’s already started. It hasn’t been working.”
Get used to the inside-baseball hitting talk. With Rendon, the discussion won’t resemble Bryce Harper tape measure homers, but is more likely to be an analysis of how he “gets his front foot down early” so he can handle the fastball, yet still seems to be able to handle off-speed pitches.
Or you can forget all that and just enjoy a rookie with a grin, a gift and an unexpected season to find out how he and the big league life interact.
“The pitchers are smarter up here. Smarter about everything,” said Rendon. However, whether it’s his switch to second base or his first trip to another new city, Rendon greets it all with a relaxed delight.
“It’s baseball. It’s still just a game,” he said. Then the grin breaks out, like he’s seen a feast placed before him. “It’s another day.”
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.