The Uncommon Careers of Adam Jones and Howie Kendrick

Brett Favre was fascinating to watch and not just because he won football games. Fans watched in awe of how he won football games. Favre was often referred to as a gunslinger with unorthodox mechanics and a propensity to make questionable decisions. Mike Holmgren claims to have “aged many years to that relationship” because Favre’s fundamentals and decision-making weren’t always enviable. And yet, Favre had an innate ability to overcome perceived weaknesses that many thought should have precluded him from success. Baseball players also succeed with apparent shortcomings and overcome the odds because they have some special talent in one area or another. Two current examples are Adam Jones and Howie Kendrick.

Adam Jones isn’t an elite baseball player in the same way that Favre was an elite football player, but Jones is very good. He also has a “flaw” that typically prevents hitters from being effective and yet, Jones has hit at an above-average level for his career. In this regard, Jones is a rare talent in the same vein as Favre and an interesting case.

Jones loves to swing the bat, as I’m sure all baseball players do. But Jones loves to swing the bat more than most. His career Swing% is close to 55% and has never fallen below 52% in any year of his career. He swings at a large percentage of pitches out of the strike zone as evidenced by his career 40.5% O-Swing%. This habit has led to a low career walk rate of 4.5%. The FanGraphs glossary would categorize this walk rate as “awful”, and it is. In fact, Jones’ walk rate is so low that we would expect him to be a below-average offensive player, which he is not.

In 2013, 101 players finished with a wRC+ above 100. Of those 101 players, 79 of them had a walk rate of over 7%. The top 16 players in terms of wRC+ had a double-digit walk rate. By contrast, only four players in all of baseball had walk rates above 10% and finished with a wRC+ of under 100. This data makes sense. Typically, players that know the strike zone and avoid swinging at poor pitches hit better than those who extend the zone frequently.  Of these 101 players with an above-average wRC+, only nine finished with a walk rate of under 5%. Those players are listed in the table below.

Player BB% wRC+
Starling Marte 4.4% 121
Shane Victorino 4.7% 119
Adam Jones 3.6% 118
Torii Hunter 4.0% 117
Howie Kendrick 4.5% 116
Jean Segura 4.0% 107
Daniel Murphy 4.6% 106
Salvador Perez 4.0% 105
Manny Machado 4.1% 101

Jones was the only player to have a walk rate under 4% and still have an above-average wRC+. He still finished in the top 50 in wRC+. His .285/.318/.493 slash line was solid, and he had an excellent .208 ISO.These are impressive numbers for someone who walked 25 times in 689 plate appearances.

You’ll notice Howie Kendrick on that list. Again, Kendrick isn’t a superstar, but he has been an above-average offensive player for his career. Kendrick also has a tendency to swing often, swinging about 54% of the time in 2013.  Even so, Kendrick slashed .297/.335/.439 while walking only 23 times in 513 plate appearances.

The 2013 season isn’t what makes these two players interesting. Many players have had solid seasons with poor walk rates. Jones and Kendrick are interesting because they have made a career out of walking very little and still producing quality offense. Both players debuted in 2006 and have around 4000 plate appearances. In the last 25 years, only six players with 3000 plate appearances or more have managed to maintain a walk rate of under 5% and a wRC+ of over 100.

Player BB% wRC+
Steve Garvey 4.6% 108
Howie Kendrick 4.6% 107
Adam Jones 4.5% 107
Tony Armas 4.7% 105
Ivan Rodriguez 5.0% 104
Brian Harper 3.9% 101

Pretty amazing. As their careers continue both players may have down years that take them off this list, but the fact that they have hacked their way to this level of production is astounding. They are truly rare players.

This rare talent also displays each player’s offensive weakness. Based on how other players have performed, Kendrick and Jones would likely be more productive offensive players if they swung at less pitches outside the strike zone and walked more. In the same interview linked above, Mike Holmgren mentions that Favre was able to tone down some of his poor tendencies in order to improve his performance. Favre was always going to look and play differently than other elite quarterbacks, but he started winning more consistently because those differences became less extreme.

Both Kendrick and Jones will likely need to improve their walk rates to remain good offensive players as they age. So far this season, Kendrick has shown signs of improvement. He has a 9.5% walk rate in 201 plate appearances.  Jones continues to swing as often as he can. He owns an almost unfathomable 2.5% walk rate. These numbers help explain why Kendrick has had two of the best months of his career while Jones has been mediocre.

Regardless of what happens going forward, Jones and Kendrick have had oddly productive offensive careers to this point. We can simultaneously appreciate their uniqueness while also seeing the blemishes related to that uniqueness. They aren’t elite offensive players, but they have remain productive in spite of a flaw that often keeps players from even reaching the major leagues.

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David Scott
David Scott

Kendrick’s increased walk rate might be reflected in his improved ability to lay off the low breaking stuff this year.