Watching Howie Kendrick hit has always been a joy for me. The way he sprays line drives all over the field is simply fun to watch. When a hitter is consistently able to square the ball up no matter the location, they are pretty special. Kendrick falls into this category when he is going well, as he is extremely tough to get out and seems to hit everything. Angel fans have become accustomed to seeing Kendrick rifle line drives off the right center field wall. Because of this, the Angel faithful have always had a special place in their hearts for Howie. Most Angel followers have always revered Mr. Kendrick, yet Howie has left them wanting more. Imagine a parent who loves their kid, but is just waiting for them to reach their potential. Due to a widely perceived off year in 2012, some of that support has dwindled. Upon further review of his numbers, Howie was not as bad as many thought he was last year. Actually, if he can fix two things, he stands a good chance to start living up to the great expectations that have always followed him. But first, let’s go back to the beginning.
When Howie Kendrick made his debut on April 26, 2006, the excitement was palpable. He was being called upon to kick start a struggling offense and the reports of his minor league prowess with the bat were glowing. Kendrick was promoted despite the fact that incumbent second baseman Adam Kennedy was hitting .338 at the time. That mattered very little, as manager Mike Scioscia was in need of some more production from his lineup. The offense seemed to need Kendrick’s bat and it did not matter what position he played. With Casey Kotchman struggling, Kendrick was one of several players given a shot at first base that year. As a matter of fact, during that first season, Kendrick started more games at first base (42) than he did at second base (25). There was much excitement about his offensive abilities, from the coaching staff, fellow players and fans alike. The most commonly bandied about description Angel fans heard was “future batting champ”. Those three words have followed Kendrick throughout his first 7 big league seasons and probably will continue to until he wins a batting title. Fair or not, a lot has always been expected of the second baseman.
Every winter from 2007-2011 Angel fans would wonder if the coming season would be the one that Kendrick would lead the league in hitting. This winter, due to the obvious fact that Mike Trout will lead the universe in hitting for the next 20 years, (just kidding, only the next 15 years) there has been little discussion of a batting title for Kendrick. Combine the Trout factor with the double play, rally killing machine that was Howie Kendrick last year and you can understand why those expectations might have fallen for Howie. To those who watched a large portion of Angel games last year it seemed like EVERY time Howie was up with a runner on first, a double play followed. Well of course that was not true; the actually number was only 23% of the time. Yes, you saw that right. With a runner on first and less than two outs, Kendrick hit into a double play almost a quarter of the time. The double plays definitely hurt, as they always seemed to come in big spots. But recording such a large number of GIDP does not make a season a failure, just ask Miguel Cabrera. Most of Kendrick’s other numbers were right in line with his career averages, so why did last year seem so rough? When you look closely at those numbers there are four stats that stick out, and they all coincide with each other and all stem from 2011.
The worst thing that could have happened to Howie Kendrick was hitting 18 homeruns in 2011. That year it was quickly evident that his approach at the plate had changed. Howie was starting to become more pull happy than ever before. This was getting away from his strength of hitting the ball to all fields. But there was not a ton of concern since it resulted in added power and his one and only all-star appearance. Howie finished the 2011 campaign with a .285/.338/.464 line to go with his career high 18 homeruns. Maybe this is who he really was: a .285 hitter with 20 homerun power. Apparently Kendrick believed this is who he was as he entered the 2012 season. Throughout the 2012 season Kendrick looked to be making a concerted effort to drive the ball. However, this seemingly new approach started to backfire very quickly. The result was more groundballs on the left side and a very low average, not more homeruns. This continued for a good portion of the year until Howie slowly began getting back to his old self. As I mentioned before there are 4 numbers that stick out to me when I look at Howie’s 2012 season.
The first number is his Groundball/Flyball rate of 1.43, easily the highest of his career and a major outlier when compared to his career average of 1.19. The second and third numbers are his first pitch swinging percentage of 28% and his 3.62 pitches/plate appearance. He swung at the first pitch at a higher rate than ever before and although his 3.62 Pit/PA is in line with his career average, the last time he was so impatient was 2008, his age 24 season. The fourth number I find absolutely unbelievable. Despite his increased proclivity for pulling the ball, Kendrick only had 30 hits to left field all year long! Out of his 158 hits, only 30 were to left. 30!!! When looking at Kendrick’s spray chart you notice one major thing: a ton of outs on the left side and not a lot of hits on that side. Howie has always gone the opposite way as well as anyone, outside of Mr. Yankee, Derek Jeter. Simply put, when Kendrick is slightly more patient and does not try to pull the ball, he is incredibly productive. As I stated earlier, Howie did begin to turn his year around, finishing 22nd in the AL in batting average (.287), 23rd in the AL in doubles (32), and 25th in the AL in hits.
Kendrick is one of the top 10 second baseman in all of baseball. To finish in the top 25 of those three categories is pretty good for someone having an off year. The problem is that everyone expects more. In my opinion, expectations may have been a little high for Howie, but not by much. Howie has incredible hand/eye coordination and is truly gifted at hitting the ball the other way. Entering his age 29 season, I firmly believe that Howie’s best years are still ahead of him. However, Kendrick needs to get back to what prompted teammates such as mentor Garret Anderson to dub him a “future batting champ”. That means demonstrating more patience, and refraining from trying to pull outside pitches. Hitting the ball where it is pitched is not easy, and few major leaguers continually excel at it. But this is what made Howie so special as a hitter, and if he get back to being that guy, he is in line for the best year of his career. No matter where he hits in the lineup, Howie has the chance to make this Angel lineup truly special. When you factor in his much improved defense, I have a feeling we could be talking about a top 5 second baseman when the 2013 season is over.