When Howie Kendrick was first called up back in 2006 it wasn't a question of if he would win a batting title, it was a question of how many would he win? It was believed that Kendrick was some kind of hitting savant who was going to hit .330 just by showing up for work. It was an expectation that was so unrealistic that it bordered on criminal, yet we all bought into it.
Well, after seven full and partial seasons, Kendrick has exactly zero batting titles to his name. In fact, he has only twice hit over .300, back in 2007 and 2008, but he had 353 and 361 plate appearances in those seasons, so he never would've qualified for the title. Since then, Kendrick has been a full-time starter for the Angels and a pretty good one at that, he just hasn't been anything resembling a batting champ.
That's not a knock on Howie, mind you. He is betting .295 for his career, so he has still been a very good hitter, just not a great one. What we found out about Kendrick in the majors is that he is a fairly free swinger who doesn't do so well with breaking balls. If the backbone of your offensive success is feasting on fastballs, it is really going to limit your ability to hit for an elite average.
What those pretty obvious weaknesses, after so many years, finally convinced those who followed the Angels of is that Kendrick would never challenge for a batting title. It just wasn't going to happen. He'll calmly click along for years hitting around .290 and we would all be perfectly happy with that even though we would all reserve the right to make "Howie batting title count" jokes as if we are somehow displeased with having a borderline All-Star second baseman on the team. But then Howie had to go and hit .335 through the first 70 games of the 2013 season.
That sonuvabitch. How dare he go and get our hopes up all over again. Sure, a batting title doesn't have the same kind of prestige it used to, but it represents the supposed potential that we all thought Kendrick had left on the table. Now we have to entertain the idea that Kendrick has finally blossomed into the hitter we all had long hoped he would be now that he is just weeks shy of his 30th birthday.
Dare we dream that dream? Is this performance for real? Can he sustain this level of production not only for the rest of this season but maybe even beyond?
The answer, as it usually is, is a qualified yes. First of all, who am I to tell you what to dream? Although dreaming about the success of an athlete you don't know does seem kind of weird to me. Why not dream about something more personal like dreaming you won the lottery or that you developed the power to control fire with your mind? If ever you were going to be selfish, it is in your dreams. Anyway, that is not the qualified yes part. No, that comes from the statistics.
The first statistic that anyone and everyone should look at when a guy starts overachieving in the batting average department is BABIP. For Howie, his 2013 BABIP currently sits at .386. That's pretty high, but it isn't outlandishly high for Kendrick who boasts a .344 career BABIP. That number is bound to regress, but regression doesn't always have to come immediately. Kendrick has been lucky so far this season and back in 2007 had a .381 BABIP over 88 games, so it is within him to maintain a BABIP that high for a long period of time. I'm not saying he will keep it up, just that it is well within the realm of possibility which boasts well for his odds of staying in this race.
What also helps, regardless of what his BABIP does, is that Kendrick is putting more balls in play. Howie has seen his strikeout rate spike the last few seasons but so far this year he has been able to correct that, getting his strikeout rate back down to 17.2% after hovering around 20% the previous two years. It doesn't take a genius to tell you that fewer strikeouts will mean a higher batting average. Oddly enough, this comes with Kendrick actually swinging much more than he ever has both at balls in and out of the zone which has led to increase in swinging strikes, but has generally led to more balls in play. As we mentioned before, good things happen when Howie puts the ball in play, so he appears to have figured that out and eschewed a more selective approach at the plate in favor of a quantity over quality approach, only he is actually getting high quality results because he does make such good contact.
The one part of Howie's current hitting make-up that could submarine his batting title quest is his batted ball profile. For years, Kendrick has hit a ton of groundballs, but this year his ground ball rate is at a career-low of 48.8%. That's still a groundball heavy profile, but it is the first time in his career that he has been below 51.6%. Those grounders though are turning into line drives, as shown by his career-best 30.0% line drive rate which is well above his career rate of 20% and previous best of 21.9%. In fact, Kendrick currently leads the league in line drive percentage. For further perspective, consider that the league leader in line drive rate last season finished at 27.2% in 2012 and 27.5% in 2011. That all adds up to scream that Kendrick's batted balll profile is totally unsustainable. Just how quickly and severely it regresses to the mean will determine whether or not Kendrick can keep his average at .335 or higher, especially since the spike in liners is almost certainly a major driving force in his elevated BABIP.
There really isn't much else for Kendrick to do to stay in the batting title hunt. If he made some kind of conscious adjustment that led to the increase in liners and/or reduced strikeouts, he should keep it up because that is all he can do to keep himself in the mix. The rest is outside of his control, especially the part where Miguel Cabrera is some sort of mindless hitting android who seems like he can hit .350 without even trying. Maybe that means Howie won't get his long-promised batting average crown, but just seeing him near the top of that leaderboard should hopefully be enough to satisfy all the fans that who are still holding that ridiculous prospect hype against him.