What To Expect When You’re Expecting: Howie Kendrick


September 14, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Los Angeles Angels second basemen Howie Kendrick (47) doubles in two runs against the Kansas City Royals during the fourth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

In case you haven’t heard, Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick has been on something of a tear so far this spring. Coming into today’s game against the Athletics at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, Kendrick is hitting .500/.500/.861 with three home runs in 36 plate appearances. So how much stock should we put into this start by Kendrick?

None. Okay, post over! Have a good day!

Ugh, fine.

My point is not to be a downer or discourage Angels’ fans from being high on Kendrick, it’s just to remind people for the seven-hundredth time that spring stats mean as close to nothing as can be. Last spring, Kendrick hit .383/.426/.667  and then proceeded to be nothing more than an average hitter during the regular season. In 2011, he hit .364 in 73 spring plate appearances and then posted a career-year. There is little correlation between spring stats and regular season ones. But of course, you know that already.

So what can we expect from Kendrick going forward, once the games turn meaningful?

Coming up through the Angels’ system, Kendrick’s prospect stock was based entirely on his bat. He was a bad-fielding shortstop that would have to move off the position eventually, but whose bat would play at second base if he could prove himself capable of playing there. In 2006, Baseball America named him the number-12 prospect in baseball and second in the organization behind third baseman Brandon Wood. The popular refrain among scouts was that Kendrick at his ceiling could consistently contend for batting titles while barreling up enough balls to hit for consistent power. A profile like that at second base is a perennial All-Star.

And it’s not as though Kendrick has disappointed although it took him a while to stay healthy and begin playing every day, not really doing so until 2010—his age-26 season. That year he posted an underwhelming 98 wRC+, which basically means that his overall offensive profile was about two-percent worse than the average player. In fact, in the previous season—2009—Kendrick wasn’t much better over 400 plate appearances. It was difficult not to look at Kendrick as a bit of a bust considering the lofty potential he was said to have.

Then came 2011 and along with it a bit of a breakout. Kendrick still wasn’t contending for batting titles, but he posted a .285/.338/.464 slash line with a career-best 18 home runs. FanGraphs—thanks to an incredibly generous contribution from the UZR fielding metric—estimated Kendrick’s worth at six wins-above-replacement, which put him among the top 20 or so position players in baseball. The more tempered fielding metrics and replacement-level baselines at Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Reference were less kind and estimated his worth at a seemingly more reasonable 2.2 WARP and 4.2 WAR respectively.

Although there is always some disagreement between those three value-based metrics, the swing and variance in Kendrick’s 2011 season ran the gamut from elite-level All-Star to average player—an unusual occurrence to say the least. The major difference came from the wide range posited by the fielding metrics which, although they certainly have value, are unreliable at best.

Focusing exclusively on Kendrick’s offense, he was judged to be about 23% better than the average hitter in 2011 which ranked him fifth among big-league tweede honkmen behind only Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Ben Zobrist (who split his time between second and rightfield), and Rickie Weeks.

But in 2012, Kendrick went back to being a roughly average hitter (although again because of the variance in fielding metrics, he actually posted a higher WARP according to Baseball Prospectus than he did in 2011). His batting average and on-base percentage stayed roughly in line with what he had done in 2011, but the power decreased significantly as his slugging percentage fell 64 points.

Everything else about the past two seasons has stayed roughly the same. His batted-ball average remained among the league’s best—which suggests it’s based more on skill than luck largely because he rarely ever pops the ball up. He rivals even Joey Votto in that regard. He also continued with roughly the same rate-stats. His walk-rate remained egregiously low and his strike-out rate remained consistent.

He did, however, hit the ball on the ground significantly more and also saw less of his flyballs leave the park—which explains his lack of power. His 16.5% GB/FB ratio in 2011 was unsustainably high and the much more moderate 8.9% rate in 2012 is likely closer to his true-talent as it mirrors exactly his career-mark. He doesn’t strike out much and is able to make contact on just about anything despite his sub-par plate discipline, but he also swung at far more pitches last season than he did in 2011—especially outside the zone—which could also have led to weaker contact overall.

2011 Swing Rate:

2012 Swing Rate:

Kendrick is entering his age-29 season and is unlikely to start suddenly getting better, but if he’s a league average hitter with better-than-average defense at second going forward (which is possible depending on which defensive metric you trust most), he’ll still be well-worth the four-year, $33.5-million extension he signed before last season that will keep him in Anaheim through 2015. That deal bought out his first three free agent-eligible years—of which 2013 is the first—which means the Angels are only paying Kendrick to be a league-average player; which is pretty much exactly what he is although there is some upside for more.

Whether or not that’s considered a bust relative to his stock as a prospect in 2005-06 is up for interpretation, but anytime a tenth-round draft pick becomes an everyday player, I would consider that a success. With the firepower the Angels have in their lineup, they don’t really need Kendrick to be gangbusters—which is good, because he won’t be. The once inevitable batting titles will have to take up residence in someone else’s trophy case.