Entering the 2006 season, you would have been hard pressed to find an analyst that didn’t believe in Howie Kendrick. Kendrick not only displayed solid power for a middle infielder, but his bat was also supposed to carry him to multiple batting titles. Five mostly injury-plagued seasons later and Kendrick is one of the most frustrating players in all of baseball. It’s one thing to be injured and ineffective, but Kendrick has actually flashed some skills when healthy (which, of course, makes him even more frustrating). It may have taken five seasons, but Kendrick finally seems to be living up to expectations. Less than two months into the season, Kendrick has already posted the highest WAR of his career. We have waited what seems like an eternity, but this could be the year Kendrick finally breaks out.
Though Kendrick played in a career high 158 last season, the wear-and-tear of playing a full season may have led to some of his struggles. Kendrick posted the lowest slash line of his career (.279/.313/.407), stopped hitting fastballs and rated as a poor fielder for the first time in his career. This season, Kendrick already looks like a different player, posting the third highest WAR among hitters thus far.
Let’s start with the positives.
Never the most patient hitter, Kendrick has finally displayed some semblance of plate discipline. His current 7.9% walk rate is nearly double his career average. Kendrick has been more selective swinging at pitches outside of the zone, so there’s some evidence that his increased walk rate is sustainable. Last season’s struggles with fastballs appear to be a one-year aberration, as Kendrick has regained his effectiveness against the pitch this season. The same appears to be true with his fielding, as he currently rates among the best defensive second basemen in the game.
Unfortunately, there are some reasons for concern regarding Kendrick’s hot start. His .322/.384/.530 slash line appears to be a product of good fortune. While Kendrick has been able to post some high BABIPs over his career, his current rate of .396 is unsustainable. His high batting average seems to be a result of a 13.8% infield hit rate, and his power surge appears to be propped up by a career high HR/FB rate of 20.7 (his career average in the category is only 7.8). On top of that, Kendrick is currently striking out at a much higher rate this season (24.8% compared to a career rate of 17.5%).
As expected, Kendrick’s line is going to drop once all his stats begin to normalize. There’s nothing in Kendrick’s current profile to suggest he can suddenly slug balls out of the park at a higher rate, or that he will continue to beat out infield hits. While he’s been a high average player since he entered the majors, Kendrick is going to struggle to post a strong batting average if he continues to strikeout at such an elevated rate.
That’s not to say Kendrick is going to be completely useless this season. He’s already posted a career high in WAR and we aren’t even halfway through May. If he can continue to play above-average defense, and sustain the gains in his walk rate, Kendrick might rate as one of the better second basemen at the end of the season. Even with the regression, Kendrick might post the most valuable season of his career…just don’t expect him to continue raking at this rate.