When you think of the most popular players in baseball right now, you’ll likely put Shohei Ohtani at or near the top of the list. When you think of the best player in baseball over the last decade, Mike Trout doesn’t have much competition.
The Los Angeles Angels, with two of the game’s biggest stars, should be a force to be reckoned with…right? Coming into July, the Angels sit in second-to-last place in their division. If you’re a glass-half-full person using FanGraphs’ playoff odds,, the Angels cling to a 10.6% chance of snagging a playoff spot. If you’re a glass-half-empty person using Baseball-Reference’s simple rating system, there’s a 97.5% chance that the Angels’ season will end on October 3rd, when everyone’s regular season does.
But wait! Aren’t we forgetting someone? Weren’t the Angels tossing cash at the 2019 free-agent class? Didn’t they reel in the third baseman from the reigning World Series Champion team? You’d be right, dear reader, which makes this much more disappointing for Angels fans.
Anthony Rendon may not be anywhere near the list of the league’s most popular players, but when the Angels signed him, Rendon had amassed 32.7 fWAR in his career, which was the eighth-highest among all position players in that time. That’s more than Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant, or Giancarlo Stanton.
What am I trying to drive home here? Anthony Rendon is really good. In his first season with the Angels, albeit a shortened one due to the pandemic, Rendon gave the Angels production on par with his usual stellar self. As things around baseball began to creep back to “normal” in 2021, I’m sure Angels fans were excited for a full season with their two superstars and their newly acquired superstar. How has Rendon done in 2021?
Through the First 55 Games
.233/.322/.364, 86 OPS+, 5 HR, 33 RBI, 27 BB, 37 K
Rendon’s a really interesting player because he seems to defy the trend of recent hitters conceding strikeouts for increased power. He’s a high average guy, gets on base a lot via the walk scores routinely, drives in runners often, and hit 20 or more home runs in the previous four full seasons.
He’s a high-quality contact hitter with great plate discipline. Rendon is someone who, when you go to his Baseball Savant page, you expect to see shades of red indicating he’s in the top percentages of the league. Instead, the shades of blue indicate the exact opposite in 2021.
The few things he continues to excel at while struggling to produce are in the plate discipline category. He’s keeping his whiff and chase rates down which, in turn, are limiting his strikeouts. This isn’t new for Rendon, which is why I was caught off guard when looking through the league leaders of batters caught looking over the past few seasons.
Baseball-Reference provides total strikeouts looking (L/SO) and the percentage of strikeouts looking out of a player’s total strikeouts (L/SO%). From season to season, Rendon consistently has one of the highest rates of L/SO%. It got me thinking about how the game used to view the “backwards K” and how that might be changing.
“Years ago, striking out was the Scarlet Letter.”
— Joe Maddon, via ESPN
Earlier this season, ESPN polled some of their baseball writers about the issues that have Major League Baseball standing at a crossroads. Tim Kurkjian explored “How the ‘K’ became the most destructive letter in Major League Baseball” and, while the article doesn’t revolve around looking strikeouts, I thought the comparison from Maddon was a funny one. It’s obviously an exaggeration and we could certainly find many things worse than the increasing strikeout numbers, but it jogged my memory of my old softball coach’s gripes about going down looking. I can hear the perturbed command of swing the bat! coming from the third base coach’s box now. What would he have to say about Anthony Rendon now?
Long-time Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell would say “He stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched it go by!” Harwell was also known to rib batters who got caught looking by saying they were “out for excessive window shopping.”
What if, however, the batter rightfully decided that a pitch wasn’t worth indulging in? During Harwell’s 42 seasons with the Tigers, there wouldn’t be much to go on besides the conflicting words from the batter and the umpire. But with the implementation of Statcast for the 2015 season, today’s baseball fans can refer to real-time data and watch endless videos to decide for themselves.
So with the help of my colleague Jeff Nicholas, that’s what we did. The visual below shows every pitch that Rendon has browsed from the side of the road and decided to watch go by. Of his 187 looking strikeouts from 2015 to 2020, 118 pitches were rightfully called strike three. 69 of those pitches should have been a ball. Some of them, my old coach might say, were “too close to take!” Others, however, were clearly outside of the zone.
As Jeff combed through data, he noticed that some of the players with high caught looking rates throughout history also had high walk rates. Some of the players we consider to be infrequent strikeout hitters actually got caught looking more than you’d think.
One of the best, of course, is Tony Gwynn. In an average of 679 plate appearances per season, Gwynn struck out just 29 times. His highest strikeout total was 1988’s 40 punch-outs. Old Deadspin went as far as to say that Tony Gwynn was “The Babe Ruth of Not Striking Out.” But on the rare occasion when he did strikeout, Gwynn went down looking about a quarter of the time.
Ozzie Smith, another Hall of Famer and low-strikeout guy was caught window shopping almost 32% of the time he struck out. He’s a good example of a player with an above-average walk rate (10%).
One last player who really stood out wasn’t a big name, but his L/SO% was significant. Jody Reed struck a total of 407 times; 205 of those times were looking. He struck out less than nine percent of his plate appearances, but every-other strikeout was looking! If the league were to award a scarlet, backwards K as Maddon joked, I’d assume Reed would be a likely recipient.
Is Anthony Rendon OK?
While Anthony Rendon is frequently atop the very-hidden, hardly-noticeable L/SO% leaderboard, it’s not something to fret about. It’s a quirky little thing that allowed me to stop and think about my days on the diamond and gave me a gentle reminder that if Anthony Rendon understands that we can’t be perfect all the time, I can learn to take it easy on myself too. Maybe it’s okay to occasionally stand there like the house by the side of the road and watch something marvelous go by, as long as we allow ourselves to appreciate the moment too.
Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)