Kitschy Kyle Kendrick

Surprisingly, Kyle Kendrick has been in the news quite frequently over the last two months. First, the Phillies paid him $3.585 million to avoid arbitration, then the news of his recent contract extension arrived on Sunday. I was surprised by the amount of support for both transactions, and I noticed some common themes among the pro-Kendrick crowd:

  • He is versatile
  • He is cheap
  • He is a proven veteran
  • He has a good work ethic
  • He is unable to be properly accounted for by DIPS

I’d like to address the first four bullet points quickly because they imply uniqueness. Yes, Kendrick is versatile, but Joel Pineiro would be versatile as well and he is simply signed to a Minor League deal. Yes, Kendrick is cheap relative to Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, but he is very expensive relative to his production, and his expected production is not impressive. Yes, Kendrick is technically a proven veteran, but he wasn’t in 2007 when the Phillies called upon him to substitute in a pinch, so why couldn’t the same be done with Austin Hyatt? Yes, Kendrick has a good work ethic (at least as much as we know based on media reports), but if you give me a 4.00 xFIP pitcher with a bad work ethic and a 4.65 xFIP pitcher with a great work ethic (Kendrick), I would take the 4.00 xFIP pitcher every time and twice on Sunday.

Finally, Kendrick has the reputation for being DIPS-defiant like Matt Cain. In case you’re not familiar, Cain has been something of a head-scratcher for Saberists for quite a few years. At Baseball Prospectus last year, I inspected Cain and concluded that his defiance of DIPS was due to three factors: a spacious home ballpark in San Francisco, an above-average infield defense, and a propensity to induce weak infield fly balls and opposite-field fly balls. Unlike Kendrick, though, Cain has the ability to miss bats on a consistent basis. Cain has posted a K/9 of at least 7.0 in each of his six full seasons dating back to 2006. As Matt Swartz said in a similarly-titled post at FanGraphs, “Pitchers with high strikeouts have low BABIPs.”

Kendrick, in his four full seasons, has mustered a 4.1 K/9. If both pitchers face 40 batters in a nine-inning game, Kendrick will allow three more balls in play (three less strikeouts). Over 200 innings, that amounts to 67 more balls in play. Even if both had an identical .286 BABIP, Kendrick would allow 19 more hits simply because of his inability to miss bats. To see examples of the kind of company Kendrick has kept given his strikeout and walk rates, peruse this list.

A career .286 BABIP over roughly 600 innings is interesting because it is below the .300 area around which most pitchers cluster. However, of the 105 pitchers who have thrown at least 500 innings in the last five seasons, Kendrick’s BABIP is the 30th-lowest — not exactly the 99th percentile. Kendrick’s batted ball profile isn’t even that interesting: his career 46 percent ground ball rate is pedestrian and his 21 percent line drive rate is a hair above the league average. Unlike Cain, Kendrick does not induce infield fly balls (eight percent compared to Cain’s 13 percent).

A look at Kendrick’s BABIP on batted ball types compared to the NL average shines a little light into what, specifically, is deflating his BABIP.

Career NL
Ground .196 .237
Fly .120 .138
Line .708 .708

In 2011, Kendrick allowed 168 grounders and 133 fly balls. Given those rates, he has allowed seven fewer ground ball hits and two more fly ball hits than would the league average. Obviously, over four full seasons, you can quadruple those numbers for a general feel on the BABIP discrepancy.

Although defensive data is much less reliable than offensive data, they all seem to agree that the Phillies’ infield has been elite over the years. Between 2007-11, the Phillies have the highest UZR/150 (4.8) in the National League and second-best in all of baseball. Individually, they grade out as follows (min. 1,000 defensive innings):

The infield is weighted heavily towards those who not only contribute positively defensively, but immensely so. Utley has been the best defensive second baseman in the league in this time span. Polanco has been second-best at third base, Feliz fourth-best. Jimmy Rollins has been the fourth-best at shortstop. Looking at individual components of their UZR, they have great range: Utley vastly exceeds second-place Brandon Phillips in that department (61.2 range runs to 36.7); Feliz ranks fifth among third basemen while Polanco is not too far behind despite 2.5 times fewer defensive innings; Rollins isn’t quite there with the rest of them; and Howard is Howard.

The conundrum here is that other pitchers have played in front of the same great infield defense, but only two pitchers (min. 300 IP) have posted a lower BABIP than Kendrick: Jamie Moyer (.283) and Cole Hamels (.279). Kendrick, though, induced more ground balls than both, by four and two percent, respectively. Moyer and Hamels made their living on not allowing line drives and getting weak infield pop-ups, similar to Cain.

Given the increasing age and declining durability of the Phillies’ infield, it would be wrong to expect them to continue corralling ground balls like a baseball vacuum. Howard is recovering from an Achilles injury and we don’t know how that specifically will affect his mobility when he returns. Utley has had knee problems and shouldn’t be expected to take the field as regularly as he has in the past. Rollins has dealt with calf, hamstring, and groin injuries in the last couple of seasons, cutting severely into his mobility. And, of course, Polanco has been the victim of chronic elbow and back problems and fought through a sports hernia last year. Any BABIP advantage the infield has given him over the years should not be nearly as strong moving forward.

The Kendrick situation is par for the course. Every fan base has a player they rally behind and support despite his obvious shortcomings. It is easy to identify with Kendrick and he is one of the most likable players in baseball. That’s all well and good, but then the character traits that make him popular get conflated with those that make him valuable. A similar situation occurred with J.A. Happ: he filled in admirably amid low expectations and he displayed only good character traits (hard work ethic, honest, humble, etc.). Then fans and writers let that color their perception of his value, which resulted in some unrealistic expectations and explanations for his otherwise unsustainable success to date.

When you look at Kendrick, you should see a great person, a guy who has gone the extra mile on more than one occasion without one complaint. You should see a great teammate, someone who can take a joke, accept criticism, and arrives to work every day with a good attitude. You shouldn’t see someone who is likely to continue posting sub-3.50 ERAs nor be worth his near-$4 million salary.