Who Are You: Howie Kendrick
This is the first post in a weekly series which will run each Thursday. Over the next several weeks, I’ll take a deep dive look at new members of the Phillies roster. We’re just a couple months away from settling down to watch these guys day-in and day-out for half a year, so let’s try to find out who they are and what to expect from them in 2017.
Howie Kendrick (OF/2B) – RHB
Born: 7/12/1983, entering age-33 season
Height: 5’11”, Weight: 220 lb.
Contract Status: Will make $10 million in 2017, the final year of his contract.
2016 Stats: 543 PA, 9.2 BB%, 17.7 K%, .301 BABIP, .255/.326/.366, 91 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR, 0.5 rWAR
Career: 5457 PA, 5.3 BB%, 17.2 K%, .337 BABIP, .289/.332/.417, 106 wRC+, 26.9 fWAR, 29.1 rWAR
The Los Angeles Angels selected Kendrick in the 10th round of the 2002 MLB Draft–the very same draft in which the Phillies picked Colbert Michael Hamels in the first round–out of St. John’s River Community College. Known for his ability to make contact–Baseball Prospects noted that his plate coverage and quick wrists would make Vlad Guerrero envious–he appeared at No. 12 on Baseball America’s 2006 top-100 prospects list, behind former Phillies greats Delmon Young (No. 1) and Chad Billingsley (No. 7) and ahead of Hamels (No. 68).
That prodigious contact ability has always resulted in low walk rates for Kendrick because why take a pitch out of the zone when you can still make decent contact on it? Despite the relative lack of walks, then, he still has a solidly above average batting line for his career and an on-base percentage that is perfectly acceptable for a hitter near the top of the order.
Nevertheless, the story of his career has been written as one that never fully lived up to expectations. That is perhaps due to the expectation that he would win a batting title, an unreasonable expectation for anyone given that only one player can win it each year. Even so, he’s hit over .300 only twice in his career, but has made an All-Star team (2011) and received MVP votes (2014). His defense at second base rated as solidly above-average during his prime, but dipped enough in recent years that a move to the outfield was necessary to keep his bat in the lineup.
With the Dodgers no longer in need of an unimpressive bat in the corner outfield, they dealt him to the Phillies this offseason for the incredibly underwhelming package of Darin Ruf and Darnell Sweeney.
While Kendrick’s profile arguably dragged the Dodgers down, he will undoubtedly boost the Phillies offense. That’s an example of damning with faint praise as just about any major leaguer would represent an improvement over the likes of Cody Asche, Peter Bourjos, and Jimmy Paredes in the corner outfield spots.
He’s not going to hit the ball out of the park, or even hit doubles. The dude just hits grounder after grounder with a career ground ball rate of 55.7 percent. His 61 percent ground ball rate in 2016 led the league by a large margin and he ranks only behind ground-ball maven Nori Aoki in ground ball rate over the last three seasons. Even in the power surge of recent seasons that saw Freddy Galvis hit 20 dingers last year, Kendrick hasn’t reached double digits in that category since 2013 despite regular playing time.
He compensates for that by avoiding another offensive trend in baseball: Increased strikeouts. His strikeout rate has remained below 20 percent in all but one season of his career. Further, he posted by far the highest walk rate of his career last season at 9.2 percent by cutting down on the pitches he offers at out of the strike zone.
This change is amplified further by his first and second half splits in 2016. In terms of walk and strikeout rates, his first half looked a lot like the rest of Kendrick’s career. In the second half, though, he walked in 11 percent of his plate appearances.
In terms of the sort of contact he does make, he’s relatively typical for an all-contact, no-power sort. In other words, he goes to the opposite field a lot.
This neither particularly good nor particularly bad, but it is a bit of an anomaly in the current game. It’s perfectly useful, though. With speedy–if not particularly heady–baserunners like Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera potentially hitting ahead of him in the order, Kendrick’s ability to put balls in play and avoid strikeouts should help move guys along. That is, when he’s not hitting into double plays as he did 20 times in 2016.
Kendrick has not hit a single infield fly ball, a.k.a. a popup, over the last three seasons. That is a distinction shared by exactly zero other qualified hitters over that period. In fact only four hitters have achieved that feat in a single season over that span–Joey Votto, Joe Mauer (twice), Christian Yelich, and Shin-Soo Choo. Kendrick has done it four times in his career (2011, 2014-16).
Like Corinne before me, I went into this series merely to set a baseline of expectations for new Phillies and gain a bit of familiarity heading into the season. With all the additions to the team fitting the mold of run-0f-the-mill veteran, I didn’t expect to get particularly jazzed about any of these players.
However, I am pleasantly surprised by what I see in Howie Kendrick. While his defense is far from a plus, he looks like he can hold his own in the corner outfield. After years of Delmon Young, Cody Asche, and Darin Ruf getting looks out there, it will be nice to have a guy who won’t be an embarrassment. Further, his offensive skills as a high-contact hitter should fit well in a lineup that could feature a decent amount of speed up top with Herrera, Hernandez, and, eventually, perhaps J.P. Crawford and Roman Quinn as well.
It will be interesting to see how the Phillies use Kendrick defensively as the season progresses and prospects get promoted. The working assumption is that he will play his way to a July trade to open room for Quinn, Nick Williams, Dylan Cozens, or Aaron Altherr, but, as we saw with Peter Bourjos, Jeremy Hellickson, and Aaron Harang before them, that is easier said on January 19 than done on July 31. Kendrick played left field, second base, first base, and third base for the Dodgers last season, so there is still a role for him post call-ups as a roving utility player in the final months of the season.
Due Up Next Thursday: Pat Neshek