.384/.421/.638. Do you know how many times a slash line better than that has been put up since 1901? 13 times. 13 TIMES! And, it has only been done by eight different players. That is a stupid good slash line that translates to an OPS+ of roughly 155. Why is that slash line important to this post? Well since you didn’t read the title, I guess I’ll tell you. That was Howie Kendrick’s triple slash line across 63 games for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in 2005. He would get promoted to AA Arkansas that year and put up a .342/.382/.579 slash line in his final 46 games of the 2005 season. Since being drafted in the 10th round of the 2002 Draft, Kendrick had shown that he had been able to hit, well, anything. However, this particular season – one where Howie would continue to torch pitchers even after making what is considered to be the largest jump in any system from High A to AA – tagged Howie with a label that he is saddled with to this day…….”Future Batting Champion.”
It’s hard to imagine that a talented hitter like Howie Kendrick could fall all the way to the tenth round when he possess such an uncanny ability to make solid contact on a regular basis, but then of course, Howie lived in the middle of absolute bleeping nowhere. Born in Jacksonville, Howie grew up in nearby Callahan, FL. The most recent census has the population of Callahan at 1,126, which is an increase of 17% since the 2000 census, which means that when Howie Kendrick was spraying line drives all over the field at West Nassau High School there were less than 1,000 occupants in that town. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we in the country refer to as; “Living in the sticks.” Luckily for Howie, the Angels had a scout in Florida that was willing to check out players on a whim, enter Tom Kotchman.
Yes, Tom Kotchman, former Provo Pioneers and then Orem Owlz manager and legend in the Angels farm system received a phone call from a Tampa area Junior College coach recommending that Tom come check out Kendrick. Tom traveled to scout Howie (Who was coincidentally being cut by Junior Colleges at this time), and left not knowing how a pure hitter like this was flying so far under the radar. He kept a lid on his findings, and come draft day, the Angels took him in the tenth round (294th overall). After signing, Howie was shipped off to the AZL Angels where he would start a minor league career that would see him post a career minor league slash line of .360/.403/.569. Howie shot up the Angels prospect rankings topping out at number two in the Angels system in 2005 as well as number 12 in Baseball America’s top 100.
A product of one of the deepest farm systems in all of baseball at the time, Kendrick was no longer a kid trying to play for a small JUCO so he could go to school, he was a can’t miss prospect with a bat made of pure gold. He made his debut in 2006, and in 2007 was given the keys to the second base job when Adam Kennedy left via free agency. Howie delivered on his promise that summer by putting up a .322/.347/.450 slash line in 88 games with the Angels and even became a centerpiece of sorts for a possible trade for some guy in Florida. Never one to take many walks (only 9 in 2007); his ability to make consistent contact gave him an above average SO/BB ratio of 6.78. With every season thereafter however, the hopes from fans for a future batting champion slowly but surely became nothing more than a pipe dream. From 2008 on, his batting averages were .306, .291, .279, .285 and .287. His BB% has climbed since then, but pitchers have exposed him with low and away sliders that Howie just can’t seem to layoff of, and have led to a rising K% as well. Still, a second baseman who puts up a rough line of .285/.330/.430 has value, Jerry Dipoto recognizes that, and rewarded Howie with an extension prior to 2012, locking him up through 2015.
How about getting the ball in the air in 2013? Mmmkay?
I’ve been referencing ZiPS a lot during these projections, and there really is no need to quite doing it now, even when ZiPS goes and says that a player who is right in the middle of his prime years is going to have his worst offensive season to date. According to Szymborski’s mighty ZiPS computer, Howie is projected to put up a slash line of .272/.314/.405. The ISO of .133 would be the third best of his career and right in line with his career ISO of .134, but the culprit for the low projections (just like in most cases) is a low balled BABIP. It’s a stat that is heavily influenced by luck, but over time patterns do develop even where luck is concerned. ZiPS says Howie will have a BABIP of .316 this year, Howie’s career average is .340. And in the case of Howie Kendrick, he has a career IP% (Balls in-play percentage) of 75%, does he have to “hit ‘em where they ain’t” to have a solid BABIP? Yes. Does he have a really good chance of that happening putting so many balls in play with regularity? Um, yes.
The real issue with Kendrick in recent memory is that his FB% has been dropping and his GB% has been rising. His LD% for his career is 19.1% and each of the last two seasons it has been above 20% and I would not be wasting words here if the lack of fly balls was leading to an uptick line drives. Unfortunately, that is simply not the case, and it became a glaring issue last year when he posted his highest GB% and lowest FB% for his career (58.6% and 20.8% respectively). And this new trend gets magnified in high leverage situations where Howie’s FB% plummets to 6.5% and his GB% skyrockets to 71%. I don’t know what Howie is doing differently in his approach, but he needs to get back to getting some lift when he makes contact or his numbers are going to continue to slip and when his NTC runs out on his contract, his affordability could make him expendable with Taylor Lindsey and Alex Yarbrough down on the farm.
Ugh, we still have no depth.
Speaking of Taylor Lindsey and Alex Yarbrough, they may want to hurry up and prove their stuff to the brass. Both have the raw abilities to be solid major league second basemen, but both are also two to three years away from contributing at the earliest. Just like with Erick Aybar, the only real fall back to Howie should he go down – Which is not as much of a concern as it was when he was younger – is Andrew Romine, or any of the numerous career minor leaguers that Dipoto signed over the winter. As GIDP happy as Howie was last year, he still is, by far, the organizations best option at second base. Hopefully with Howie having bone chips removed from his elbow this winter he will be better, but I’m not banking on it since he has been dealing with them for a few years and they didn’t seem to hinder him in 2010 when he put together his most complete season to date. Howie would have to redefine the Mendoza-line to get benched which is highly unlikely, but injuries do happen, and hopefully they don’t happen to Howie.
There are some fans out there who still believe that Howie is going to be that future batting champion that we were promised back in 2005 (I’m looking at you Tom), but I couldn’t hold my breath any longer waiting for it to happen. Howie is a solid major leaguer who is easily a second-tier second basemen in baseball today. He has a slightly above average bat, an average glove and (on the 20-80 grade scale), a 90 smile. He once got Ben Affleck booed which in and of itself is worth a 4 year $33.5MM contract. We have stars at multiple positions, and although Howie has been an All Star, he is not one of our superstars. And that’s fine by me, because the role players are just as important to the success of the team. Howie’s a role player, he knows his role, and for the most part he executes well within that role. He just needs to stop hitting the ball on the ground as often as he did last year, my receding hairline simply can’t take that many GIDP again this year.