For the first time in a decade, Baseball America’s College Player of the Year is an underclassman. In the 30-year history of the award, underclassmen won just three times before this year, and all three were special talents who went on to long, successful big league careers: sophomores Robin Ventura of Oklahoma State (1987), John Olerud of Washington State (1988) and Mark Teixeira of Georgia Tech (2000).
Rice sophomore third baseman Anthony Rendon fits the same mold. The early favorite to be drafted No. 1 overall in 2011, Rendon put up numbers that match his prodigious talent, hitting .394/.530/.801 with 26 home runs and 85 RBIs. That power output is even more impressive given how seldom he got good pitches to hit, as evidenced by his 65 walks and 22 strikeouts in 226 at-bats. If that weren’t enough, Rendon also stole 14 bases in 18 tries and posted a .973 fielding percentage at the hot corner, where he committed just five errors all season.
We featured Rendon after he won BA’s 2009 Freshman of the Year award, so this time we’ll let others do the talking. We asked those who coached with and against Rendon, as well as Rendon himself, to try to put his season and his talent into perspective.
Rice coach Wayne Graham: “I think you get a little comfortable sometimes with how good a guy is; you expect him to do it every time. He does some phenomenal things. The thing that in my mind stood out is this year, defensively, he was absolutely wonderful. He had five errors the whole year, and that doesn’t tell the whole story—he made a lot of sensational plays. And the bat is obvious.
“He has had to hit some pitches that a good hitter wouldn’t ordinarily have to swing at to get some hits. I think he’s actually sacrificed some at-bats because of that. It’s not that he swings at bad pitches, but he has to expand to hit the ball. He knows where the strike zone is, but he also knows we need him to get hits. So I think he intentionally expands it once in a while.
“He’s got remarkable wrist action. I remember the first time he hit on our field, I’d seen him hit a little in high school and knew he could hit. He started the second round of batting practice, I said to our coaches, ‘You want to see Hank Aaron’s wrists? There they are.’ I said, ‘Don’t mess with him.’ And we haven’t. Him and Teixeira are the two best hitters I’ve seen in college baseball. (Lance) Berkman is right up there too, but the bat was different in those days.
“I think it’s reflexes (that make him so good defensively). He obviously has incredible hand-eye coordination, and he has an ability to pay attention. When the ball gets to home plate, I think he’s in a state of heightened awareness. I’ve read about that before, how the great fielders say when the ball’s about to be in play you’re in a state of heightened awareness. His reactions are incredible in the field. H is hands are equal to (Reds shortstop Paul) Janish’s, who’s in the big leagues because of his glove. The only people I’ve put that label on in our program are Janish and Rendon; h e’s got great hands. It turns out his arm is strong and accurate. Ordinarily I don’t like for a third baseman to throw on the run a lot, but he does it so well, we never discourage him from playing that way. Not many people can play it that way with surety, throw it accurate to first base. He’s been so reliable, it seems like he had those five errors at midseason and hasn’t made one in forever. [Rendon ended 2010 on a 23-game errorless streak.]
“He loves to play baseball. He shows up every day smiling, he never carps about anything—he’s very even. The only thing I’ve had to key him down on is if somebody does something like step on the foot of our first baseman, he wants to come across the field. He’s a team guy, you know what I mean? I’ve told him if there’s a problem like that to let us handle it. We need him to stay in the lineup. He really is that kind of guy. You hate to over-praise a guy, but he’s a pleasure to deal with.
“I’ve got to get him to Omaha next year. People in Omaha deserve to see him play.”
East Carolina coach Billy Godwin: “He ‘s a baseball player, No. 1. If you look at him, you’re not going to be overwhelmingly impressed physically, but he plays the game with as much feel as anybody I’ve ever seen. Just his confidence at the plate . . . It’s one thing to pitch around the guy and not let him beat you, but it’s another for him to stand up there and take it. He could hack and go into a slump, but he doesn’t do that, he takes what you give him. I’ve been as impressed with him defensively as I have been offensively, to be honest. He made two plays against us that were as good as I’ve seen in college baseball.
“There’s no doubt, I don’t think I’ve seen anybody better. What more would you want? He can play defense, he can hit, he’s a good runner, he’s instinctive. Yeah, I don’t know what else you could look for in a player.”
Tulane coach Rick Jones: “Rice always has so many weapons, and they’ve got some other guys in the middle of their lineup. But you look and say, ‘The one guy we can’t let beat us is that guy.’ (When) we try to go hard in, he gets his hands in. We try to go soft away, he stays back. He’s a special kid.”
“As good as he is offensively, he’s just as good defensively. You can’t bunt on him, he can move laterally, and he can make throws going laterally with something on it—he’s just got that body control. He can do things that big leaguers do; he’s special. The thing is he can slow the game down. I don’t think I’d ever seen a freshman slow the game down like he did last year. He’s a talent across the board. The other thing I love about him is he loves to play, he’s having fun out there every day. Wayne says he really likes to practice, and I can see that.”
Anthony Rendon: “Yeah, on a personal note, it’s pretty crazy. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it back-to-back years—even better improve my numbers from last year. Last year everything just clicked, and this year it felt like everything clicked again. I got in that groove and kept seeing the ball well the last month of the season. I know at one point earlier in the season, I dropped down to like .310 or something, I was really mad. That’s the one thing I did want to do is hit at least .400; I don’t care how many home runs or RBIs I have.
“I guess I learned a lot last year by being patient. I started putting up pretty good numbers at the beginning of the year last year. I knew going into this season I wasn’t going to get as many pitches as I got last year. When I got the pitch, maybe one or two per at-bat, I had to make something happen. I just had to stay patient.
“I had a little shoulder problem last year, because at the beginning of the fall I threw too much, and that affected my throwing a little bit during the season. I really didn’t do that much this year, I just tried to take it easy. I’m not oblivious to all the message boards and what people say about me. I actually kind of like reading that stuff. Last year they said I had too many errors, and I’m not as good defensively as I should be. I thought, ‘I need to prove those people wrong this year.’ I wanted to take my time throwing the ball to first base. Last year about 75 percent of my errors were overthrown balls to first base—I threw 10 or 15 feet over (Jimmy) Comerota at first base.
“I try to stay pretty calm. I’m not one of the guys yelling, trying to pump up my team. I’m not one of those guys, but I will get aggressive on the field, and I do want to win every time I go out there . . . It’s just my intensity, it’s just the way I am. It’s just a natural instinct, you could say.”