After coming off an age 34 season in which he had played only 40 games for the Nationals, the 2019 outlook didn’t look all too bright for Howie Kendrick. He had performed adequately in those games, posting a 112 wRC+ and 0.4 fWAR, but the Statcast numbers painted a different picture, with Kendrick having vastly outperformed his xBA and xSLG, indicating that regression was likely. Things seemed even more bleak when Washington signed free agent Brian Dozier to be their everyday second baseman, filling the position where Kendrick had started 80% of his games the year prior. But the reality of baseball doesn’t always play by logical rules.
The 2019 Washington Nationals are postseason bound. As I write this, their odds of earning a wild card spot in the NL are 95.9%, according to FanGraphs. Howie Kendrick has earned the right to be the starting first baseman in the one game playoff.
A quick look at 2019’s MLB leaders in wRC+ shows that Kendrick has been much improved this year. At first it seems something must be amiss. There’s his name, 21st among all players with at least 300 PA, with his 139 putting him directly between Anthony Rizzo and JD Martinez. Surely this can’t be right; those two are stars and have been elite hitters for years. Kendrick is a nice role player, but he isn’t like them. Yet there he is.
After the initial shock, you may try to reason with yourself over what you have just seen. Howie Kendrick is only a part-time player. Maybe the Nationals have used him in mostly a platoon role, allowing him to bash left handers and boost his numbers that way. That would make sense. A look into the numbers would indeed say that Kendrick has been great against lefties, with an OPS over 1.000 and a wRC+ of 155 against them in 118 PA. You breath a sigh of relief, thinking the world makes sense again, but just for closure’s sake you decide to look at what Kendrick has done against righties. As you read the numbers you break out in a cold sweat, realizing you haven’t escaped the Twilight Zone. His wRC+ against same handed pitchers is 131.
You’ve nearly fallen into an abyss of existential gloom when a light forms in the back of your mind. In 2018 Kendrick was suggested to be lucky by the Statcast metrics. He had a batting average .023 points higher than his xBA, and out slugged his xSLG by .040. He has to be doing something similar this year, just playing above his head for a long stretch. Then you open Baseball Savant to see what you had dreaded. Among all hitters in 2019, Kendrick ranks in the 100th percentile of xBA and 98th of xSLG. This season he has actually under performed his metrics. Bewildered, you close your computer and take about 25 minutes to contemplate this nonsensical world in which we live. For days you can’t break free from the feelings that you are surrounded by complete randomness, and that nothing will ever be logical. Knowing you can’t keep going like this, you determine that only one thing will be able to release from this prison: you need to figure out how Howie Kendrick has become so good.
Gritting your teeth, you go to Baseball Savant once again, this time knowing what awaits you. A cursory check gives you a good amount of information towards explaining your quandary. Kendrick’s average exit velocity has risen nearly 2 mph since last season, ranking him 20th in MLB, up from 77th in 2018. His hard hit rate is up a bit over 5%, taking his rank there from 60th to 13th. So Kendrick is hitting the ball harder, which is a great start to answering the question.
Another check through the numbers will also show that Kendrick is hitting pitches in more optimal ways, raising his average launch angle from 7.9 to 10.1 degrees. All of this has lead to an incredible boost in wOBA, .342 to .396, and xwOBA, .318 to .416, as well as Barrel%, 4.8 to 11.4. These improved numbers rank 18th, 6th, and 78th in MLB respectively, all major upticks from 2018.
One question still remains, however. How is Kendrick suddenly hitting the ball so much harder and more optimally? For that answer you switch over to FanGraphs season stat grid tool, and Kendrick’s player page. After sifting through some numbers, you see that in 2018 Kendrick had an O-Swing% of 40.3, ranking him in only the 7th percentile in not swinging at pitches out of the zone. Switching over to the grid, you find that among all hitters with at least 100 PA in both years, he has trimmed his O-Swing% the 7th most, down to 32.9. This still isn’t a great amount, putting him in the 41st percentile, but it’s a vast improvement. The more selective approach has allowed Kendrick to raise his walk rate 4%, as well as to make more contact overall, which he now does 92.5% of the time, another major jump from 2018 (88.4%). These compound to lower his strikeout rate all the way to 13.6%, 91st percentile in MLB.
At age 35 Howie Kendrick is having easily his finest offensive season, and his best one overall since 2014. Through a better process of swinging only at strikes, he has improved his contact quality significantly, becoming one of baseball’s best hitters in the process. On a crowded Nationals roster, there is no easy place to play Kendrick every day, but he has played 29 games at first base, and is clearly a superior player to Matt Adams and Ryan Zimmerman, the other options at the position. Hopefully, this spot will be his come the wild card game and possible postseason run, a gift to Howie Kendrick, courtesy of his incredible breakout.