On Rendon’s progression as a third baseman and how good he can be

First of all, before I get into some notes on Anthony Rendon’s defensive play at third base this season, I want to make sure to point out how much fun the Nationals Dream Gala was last night.

The event itself - held this year at the new Marriott Marquis - was a great time, and all of the fans, viewers and readers that I had a chance to meet were so nice.

I really did enjoy myself, and thank the Nationals for inviting me.

Now on to some baseball talk.

rendon-fielding-red-sidebar.jpgIt might go slightly unnoticed because the Nationals’ bats came alive again yesterday and they won a rout 10-2, but Rendon made a tremendous defensive play in the second inning, robbing Adrian Beltre of a hit. And Rendon somehow made the play look easy.

Here’s a clip of the play, for those who missed it yesterday. Rendon was forced back behind the third base bag because of all the topspin on Beltre’s hard grounder, and he had to go to his backhand to glove the ball. He slid to the ground, spun toward the outfield, hopped to his feet and delivered an absolute strike to first base, hitting Adam LaRoche’s mitt right on the money.

So many aspects of that play were difficult in and of themselves. In its totality, the play was pretty special.

“It’s hard, because all of his momentum is taking him to the outfield,” said Matt Williams, a four-time Gold Glove award winner himself in his playing days. “He’s got great arm strength, so that helps. But it was right on the money. I think the more he plays over there, the more comfortable he gets, the more accurate his throws become. All of that helps. But that’s a great play. Probably the most difficult one over there.

“It’s the high chopper that you can’t come get, that you have to give on, and he goes down to his knees to stop himself to turn and throw. It’s difficult, because there’s no momentum involved. But his arm strength can more than make up for that.”

Rendon got very limited playing time at third base - his natural position - last season, appearing in 10 games, and making five errors over there in that time. This season, Rendon has gotten extended time at third while Ryan Zimmerman has been on the disabled list, and it’s looking more and more like even when Zimmerman returns from the DL (possibly as soon as Tuesday), Rendon will be the Nats third baseman the vast majority of the time, with Zimmerman possibly splitting time in left field, first base and at third.

This season, Rendon has played 45 games at third, starting there in 41 of them, and has made five errors. His minus-4.0 UZR (the catch-all defensive metric measured by Fangraphs that measures theoretical runs saved or allowed) is the worst in baseball among qualifying third basemen, but it’s still a pretty small sample size (he’s only been playing that position for seven weeks or so), and I’m still not totally on board with many of the advanced defensive metrics. My eyes certainly don’t tell me Rendon is the worst third baseman in the majors, not by a long shot.

His range might not be up there with the league’s best at this point, but he’s got sure hands, a strong arm, and as we saw yesterday, the ability to make the spectacular play.

I asked Williams how good he thinks Rendon can be defensively at third.

“He can be good,” Williams said. “He’s still learning. He’s still becoming accustomed to the position. We have to understand where Anthony’s been, right? In college, he didn’t play a lot defensively (his final year at Rice) because he had (a shoulder) issue. Then he had an ankle injury (his first year of pro ball). Then he comes to the big leagues and plays second base.

“So he hasn’t been over there a lot. Everybody says that’s his natural position, but nonetheless, he hasn’t been there. So he’s still learning it. But he’s making great strides.”

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