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.

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17 comments

  1. sprot

    February 22, 2012 05:32 PM

    Good work. Thanks for regressing. I agree that Kendrick isn’t good because his performance needs to be regressed.

  2. Z

    February 23, 2012 12:46 AM

    I don’t understand the hubbub over adding an extra year to Kendrick’s salary at virtually no raise in their Lux-tax number. The team was obviously bringing him back this season either way, so if there’s value in having him this year at $3.6 than why not next year for $3.75? Best case scenario, last years second half improvement is legit and he surpasses 1 war each year and is well worth his salary. Worst case scenario and he’s the same 4.50 xfip pitcher, adds 0.3-0.5 war per season and the team eats a couple million in value.

    The team is taking a gamble that their right and they have the inside track on his “prime” years. In this case I’ll defer to the team since they have seen him pitch for the last 5 years.

  3. Paul Boye

    February 23, 2012 01:55 AM

    Because you’re guaranteeing almost $4M to a pitcher who has not been very good and who some of us feel is a ticking time bomb waiting to totally fall apart.

  4. Tim M.

    February 23, 2012 03:05 AM

    I am a supporter of KK, but signing him to this deal for 2 years makes me think he may become a mid-season trade chip in exchange for prospects. The Phils may expect him to perform well (admit it, KK was solid and very versatile last year), which would make him an attractive arm under control for another 1 1/2 more years for a team to add to their rotation in July 2012. We’ll see.

  5. John

    February 23, 2012 11:16 AM

    Thanks for the in depth look here. I guess I fall into the “Pro-Kendrick” camp, though I think of myself as being more in the “Anti-Anti-Kendrick” camp. The way I can justify the signing to myself is to compare it to the three alternatives I can imagine.

    1. Sign someone elses free-agent 6th starter who wasn’t injured or totally worthless in 2011, and hope for a 1 WAR season. Jason Marquis got $3mil from the Twins. Personally, I think KK is worth a few hundred thousand more, and Marquis missed time in 2010.

    2. Sign 3 or 4 reclamation projects like Joel Pinero for a combined total approaching KK’s salary. Hope that the odds are one will stick and give them a 1 WAR season. I could go for that one, as long as the trial period to figure out which one will stick doesn’t end up costing a win or two, negating what little value the “best” option brings.

    3. Do what probably at least 20 other teams are doing and pull someone up from the minors at the league minimum to fill the 6th starter role. I’m guessing the FO either doesn’t have faith in anyone coming up, or is already thinking that if Worley regresses and Blanton is injured, they’ll be relying on one of those guys anyway.

    If Kendrick gives the Phils another 1+ WAR season, and by taking up space prevents someone else from giving the Phils a negative WAR season, I’ll be happy. If not, then at least its not as money as I think might have been misallocated in other signings.

  6. John

    February 23, 2012 11:19 AM

    Oops – “not as much money as…”

    Also – thanks for the analyisis of the reliability of predictors in the other Kendrick thread.

  7. hk

    February 23, 2012 11:28 AM

    John,

    According to fWAR, Kendrick has not posted a 1 WAR season since 2007 and has averaged 1 WAR for every 260 IP. According to rWAR, Kendrick was worth 1.2 WAR last year, but has averaged 1 WAR for every 272 IP. I suspect that, if the anti-KK crowd was reasonably comfortable projecting that KK will provide 1 WAR per year in each of the next two years, there wouldn’t be much complaining about this deal.

  8. JR

    February 23, 2012 12:15 PM

    Guys, I’d wager that a WAR metric based on DIPS isn’t exactly the best way to evaluate a longman/spot starter/whatever he is. Just my two cents.

  9. John

    February 23, 2012 02:09 PM

    His bWAR last year was 1.2. That’s what I was looking at. But, yes, they both seem to undervalue relief pitching, or at least put a premium on IP, which would end up holding down the WAR for any reliever or spot starter. Which is more “reliable?”. BWAR or fWAR? I usually start with bWAR myself, but could be persuaded to change
    If there’s a good reason to value one more than the other.

  10. Bill Baer

    February 23, 2012 02:11 PM

    Depends on the question you’re trying to answer. In most cases, I prefer to completely disregard pitcher WAR.

  11. John

    February 23, 2012 02:13 PM

    Is it bWAR or rWAR? Does it matter?

    (sorry, hk, I’d only read the beginning of your last post, and had missed where you’d brought up both numbers.)

  12. hk

    February 23, 2012 02:15 PM

    John,

    bWAR or rWAR is based more on actual results while fWAR is based more on peripherals. The question becomes which do you trust more or rely on more for your future projections, Kendrick’s 3.22 ERA or his 4.45 SIERA, 4.55 FIP and 4.42 xFIP?

  13. John

    February 23, 2012 02:15 PM

    Did I read something here comparing the two WARs last year, or was that somewhere else? I can never remember which articles were
    On which site.

  14. John

    February 23, 2012 02:18 PM

    Thanks, hk. Would it be fair to call fWAR more predictive vs. bWAR being more reflective?

  15. JR

    February 23, 2012 04:11 PM

    Totally with you on generally avoiding pitcher WAR, Bill. The construction of each type requires a fair bit of philosophical thinking–namely how to assign credit for batted balls. Obviously the truth is somewhere in the middle.

  16. LTG

    February 23, 2012 05:34 PM

    I disagree with the predictive vs. reflective characterization. We don’t only care about distinguishing results attributable to performance and results attributable to other factors (luck, teammates, etc.) for the sake of prediction but also for the sake of accurately describing what happened. Rough-grained results-oriented stats like ERA are not good at prediction obviously, but they are also not good at describing what happened at a fine enough grain to measure an individual’s actual performance. While fWAR might be flawed, it still describes what happened in more detail than bWAR in a large majority of cases.

    I get very confused when the SABR crowd concedes the results territory to traditional stats. Results is a vague category and the very reason for the SABR revolution was to allow for a more fine-grained description of the actual results. In fact, one might think that the predictive power of SABR stats is a result of their descriptive power…

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