Just a Hitter: Watching Top Prospect Anthony Rendon in Person

In the last few days I have attended the 2011 NCAA Regional Playoffs at Rice University’s Reckling Park, where Rice played Akron State in the first round and Baylor in the second. Sunburned and baseball happy, these are my thoughts on Rice’s star hitter and upcoming MLB draftee Anthony Rendon.

Anthony Rendon is the designated hitter. When his Rice University baseball teammates jog back to the dugout at the end of their fielding half, one of the country’s best amateur hitters greets them cheerfully, playfully spurring them on with a green towel that will eventually make its way back over his head to fight the Texas heat. Rendon’s enthusiasm seems fueled by a restless desire to take the field himself, knowing that the best he can do right now is use his spare time as a cheerleader.

In the batter’s box, he is at ease in the role that best suits him. The last time I saw such relaxed hands from a Rice hitter was an evening I shared with Lance Berkman, circa 1998, when he sent a home run towards the Medical Center on a path reminiscent of the Life Flight helicopters that buzz overhead. Rendon starts by standing upright, then dramatically draws his hands back and loads up, essentially morphing his stance from one style to another before the pitch is thrown. Then, he hits the ball:

2 for 5 with an RBI on Friday against Alcorn State
2 for 4 with an RBI on Saturday against Baylor

Rendon hasn’t hit any one ball the farthest–he’s homerless in the couple of days I’ve watched him–but if you were to add up batted balls for total distance, I’m sure he’d lead the way. His outs are deep, well-struck line drives, showing the sort of loft and backspin that I can only imagine will translate nicely to wooden bat play. That, I reckon, is what the scouts see.

The kid is under some pressure. He was the only player I saw that garnered a round of applause at the mere mention of his name. He’ll likely be among the top picks in the draft. In an MLB.com article Rendon revealed a personality that contrasts the PRed up Bryce Harper and other high profile amateur players, who have already mastered sound bite dropping and cliche slinging. “I really didn’t think it would be this big,” Rendon said of his popularity and accompanying scrutiny over the last few years. “Honestly, I don’t even want it to be that big. I just wanted to be a guy that liked to play baseball. I just wanted to be an everyday player. I didn’t want to be the big name in the game that’s going to take over and everybody looks at. I don’t like the attention.”

Injuries have rendered him an incomplete player for the moment, a hitter alone. Any hesitation about his ability has been stirred by his injury history, letting slip the “assured first overall pick” crown that have marked the last few drafts.

Like a musician who checks in with the rock critics, Rendon reads the online chatter about his prospects at the higher levels, and perhaps unlike a musician, he works to address those points of weakness. “I know one of the writers said since I had 12 errors my freshman season that I’m not a good defender,” he said. “That got under my skin. I did take that into consideration and said, ‘I’ve got to prove this guy and everyone else wrong.’ That’s why I came out my sophomore year and really worked at it and had four errors. I feel like I put an end on that note.”

One reading is that he’s too wary of criticism. Another reading is that he knows when someone is right, regardless of where it comes from. Yet another reading is that the kid isn’t oblivious to the nature of the media, and that he has a sense of the world around him. That’s a kid I draft.

“It’s one more step closer to my dream,” he told MLB.com in the same article, “to what I really want to do — just play baseball and not have to worry about anything else.” There’s a difference between worry and awareness.

And while he may not field, he certainly walks, and hits.

For a look at what he’s accomplished as a hitter, note that,according to ESPN: “[Rendon] won national freshman of the year honors in 2009, hitting .388 with 20 homers and 72 RBIs. Last year, he took home the Dick Howser Trophy as the national player of the year after hitting .394 with 26 homers and 85 RBIs.” This year, he’s batted .327 with just 6 home runs, a figure that, given my impressions of his swing and his sterling reputation, is the result of the new bat situation rather than a fall-off in skill. And besides, his on-base percentage is .522. He’s struck out 32 times this year, against 79 walks.

When I go to a college baseball game, or a minor league baseball game, for that matter, I want the best prospects in the game to do something cool while I’m there. Baseball, of course, doesn’t always oblige such un-baseball-like expectations. We fans are supposed to be patient, to respect probabilities and likelihoods. Often, the best you can do is try to sense a top prospect’s aura. I saw Andrew McCutcheon play for a few games in Indianapolis, for example. He didn’t hit any triples or do much else, but he had an aura. (Now, that said, an aura can be aided by a reputation, but that’s another conversation.)

Anthony Rendon didn’t hit home runs, but he hit, and that was what I wanted to see. He didn’t play the field, but he hit. He drove in runs by putting the ball in play, hard and soft. He took his walks, he didn’t give up easy outs, and he waved his towel.

Sidenote #1: As I finish this piece, the Owls lead the Cal Golden Bears in an elimination game, having lost one yesterday to the Baylor Bears. Bear bear bear.

Sidenote #2: For my money, Rice second baseman Michael Ratteree will be a name to watch in next year’s draft.

Sidenote #3: I took these pictures, though you can find lots more nice ones by other people on Flickr.

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