Howie Kendrick Carves His Niche in Postseason History

By the time he stepped to the plate with one out in the seventh inning of Wednesday night’s Game 7, Howie Kendrick had already collected his share of postseason heroics, key hits that stood out even on a team featuring an MVP candidate and a precociously disciplined slugger, not to mention two bona fide aces and a $140 million third starter-turned-reliever. Exactly three weeks earlier, the 36-year-old utilityman-turned-designated hitter had swatted a 10th-inning grand slam in the fifth and deciding game of the Division Series, felling the 106-win Dodgers. His 5-for-14, four-RBI showing against the Cardinals earned him NLCS MVP honors, and he’d lucked into a bases-loaded infield single in the rally that swung Game 2 of the World Series. The best was yet to come.

With Houston’s lead freshly cut to 2-1 by Anthony Rendon’s home run, and starter Zack Greinke — who had been brilliant and stifling through six innings — suddenly exiting after walking Juan Soto, Kendrick etched himself into World Series lore by slicing an 0-1 changeup from Will Harris down the line and off the screen attached to the right field foul pole.

The blow gave the Nationals a 3-2 lead over the 107-win Astros, one from which they would never look back. They tacked on three more late-inning runs to bullpen-proof the game and claimed the first championship in franchise history while completing the road teams’ unprecedented seven-for-seven showing in the series.

Kendrick’s home run wasn’t just the biggest hit of this World Series. It ranks as one of the most impactful of any World Series in terms of turning potential defeat into victory. Via The Baseball Gauge’s Championship Win Probability Added, which takes into account the affect of every event on a team’s chances of winning not just a game but also the World Series, he cracked the top 10 in series history:

Highest Single-Event Championship WPA in a World Series
Game Inn Batter Team Opp Outs Bases Score Play CLI cWPA
1960 Gm 7 b8 Hal Smith PIT NYY 2 1_3 6-7 3-run HR 850.8 .628
1912 Gm 8 b10 Tris Speaker BOS NYG 1 12_ 1-2 1-Run 1B 1228.6 .491
2001 Gm 7 b9 Tony Womack ARI NYY 1 12_ 1-2 1-run 2B 1228.6 .491
2016 Gm 7 b8 Rajai Davis CLE CHC 2 _2_ 4-6 2-run HR 316.5 .416
1968 Gm 7 t7 Jim Northrup DET STL 2 12_ 0-0 2-run 3B 494.8 .381
1924 Gm 7 b8 Bucky Harris WAS NYG 2 123 1-3 2-run 1-B 1011.0 .371
1975 Gm 7 t9 Joe Morgan CIN BOS 2 1_3 3-3 1-run 1B 817.5 .356
1960 Gm 7 t6 Yogi Berra NYY PIT 1 1_3 2-4 3-run HR 422.3 .348
2019 Gm 7 t7 Howie Kendrick WSN HOU 1 1__ 1-2 2-run HR 385.6 .348
1960 Gm 7 b9 Bill Mazeroski PIT NYY 0 ___ 9-9 1-run HR 372.7 .340
2016 Gm 7 t10 Ben Zobrist CHC CLE 1 12_ 6-6 1-run 2B 775.9 .336
1997 Gm 7 b11 Edgar Renteria MIA CLE 2 123 2-2 1-run 1B 1101.8 .317
1912 Gm 8 t10 Fred Merkle NYG BOS 1 _2_ 1-1 1-run 1B 488.3 .315
1979 Gm 7 t6 Willie Stargell PIT BAL 1 1__ 0-1 2-run HR 333.6 .311
1925 Gm 7 b8 Carson Bigbee PIT WAS 2 _2_ 6-7 1-run 2B 589.8 .308
2011 Gm 6 b9 David Freese STL TEX 2 12_ 5-7 2-run 3B 306.3 .306
1946 Gm 7 b8 Harry Walker STL BOS 2 1__ 3-3 1-run 2B 301.9 .298
1946 Gm 7 t8 Dom DiMaggio BOS STL 2 _23 1-3 2-run 2B 621.8 .297
1947 Gm 4 b9 Cookie Lavagetto BRO NYY 2 12_ 1-2 2-run 2B 411.1 .295
1993 Gm 6 b9 Joe Carter TOR PHI 1 12_ 5-6 3-run HR 567.3 .292
SOURCE: Baseball Gauge

“Wait a minute,” you’re probably thinking. “How can Kendrick’s home run rank ahead of those of Mazeroski or Carter, the two World Series-clinching walk-off home runs?” That’s due to the states of both their respective games and series. When Carter came to bat against the Phillies’ Mitch Williams, the Blue Jays trailed 6-5 but had the tying run on second base and the winning run on first. Their odds of winning that game were about 34%. Carter’s homer lifted that to 100% (.659 WPA), but as the Jays held a three-game-to-two series lead at the time, they had a comparatively large margin for error, and thus Carter’s hit a much lower cWPA. Not that it makes the moment any less indelible; it’s just that the numbers surrounding it are a bit less crunchy. Touch ’em all, Joe.

As for Mazeroski’s homer, when he faced the Yankees’ Ralph Terry to lead off the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, the Pirates were tied, not trailing, which means that they already had about a 63% chance of winning the game; he took it to 100%, producing a .371 WPA with the homer. As you can see from the table, that’s lower than teammate Hal Smith’s three-run homer with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning off Jim Coates in the same game; his homer turned a 7-6 deficit into a 9-7 lead and thus lifted the Pirates’ odds from about 30% to 94%, producing a .647 WPA; the Yankees then rallied for two runs in the top of the ninth inning, setting up Maz’s dinger.

If you’re wondering how Mazeroski’s homer can have a .371 WPA but just a .340 cWPA, you’re in good company. I reached out to The Baseball Gauge’s Dan Hirsch, who explained to me that cWPA includes home field advantage, while single game WPA does not. Mazeroski’s Pirates began the game with a 54.1% series win probability, but their game win probability was 50% (as are the WPAs of individual games on FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference). “I like having HFA for series win probability,” Hirsch told me, “and single game WPA doesn’t work well when it’s not 50/50.”

By comparison, Kendrick’s homer turned the Nationals’ odds of winning the game from about 29% to 64% (.349 WPA) and increased their odds of winning the World Series by almost exactly the same amount. His homer off the foul pole put him in tremendous company alongside hits from Hall of Famers that are half a century old, or even older.

The homer also supplanted Rendon’s two-run homer in Game 6 for the biggest one of the series from a game WPA standpoint — what I termed the series’ “Signature Swing”:

Highest Single-Event Win Probability Added, 2019 World Series
Gm Inn Batter Pitcher Outs Bases Score Play LI WPA
7 t7 Howie Kendrick Will Harris 1 1__ 1-2 2-run HR 2.3 .348
6 t7 Anthony Rendon Will Harris 2 1__ 3-2 2-run HR 0.9 .216
2 t7 Kurt Suzuki Justin Verlander 0 ___ 2-2 Solo HR 1.5 .190
1 t5 Juan Soto Gerrit Cole 2 1_3 3-2 2-run 2B 1.9 .190
2 b1 Alex Bregman Stephen Strasburg 2 1__ 0-2 2-run HR 0.8 .183
1 b8 George Springer Daniel Hudson 1 _2_ 3-5 1-run 2B 2.4 .171
5 t2 Yordan Alvarez Joe Ross 1 1__ 0-0 2-run HR 1.2 .166
3 b4 Victor Robles Zack Greinke 1 1__ 0-2 1-run 3B 1.5 .165
1 b1 Yuli Gurriel Max Scherzer 2 _23 0-0 2-run 2B 1.9 .163
6 t5 Juan Soto Justin Verlander 2 ___ 2-2 Solo HR 0.5 .146
5 t4 Carlos Correa Joe Ross 2 _2_ 2-0 2-run HR 1.0 .143
2 t1 Anthony Rendon Justin Verlander 0 12_ 0-0 2-run 2B 1.8 .142
6 t5 Adam Eaton Justin Verlander 1 ___ 1-2 Solo HR 0.9 .138
6 b5 George Springer Stephen Strasburg 1 1__ 2-3 2B 1.7 .123
1 t4 Juan Soto Gerrit Cole 0 ___ 1-2 Solo HR 1.1 .121
SOURCE: Baseball Gauge

Where Rendon’s homer prevented this year’s series — which had only one game decided by fewer than three runs, and just four lead changes throughout — from having the lowest Signature Swing WPA of any World Series in the past 30 years, Kendrick’s moved it to 33rd out of the past 50. The hit’s .348 WPA is nestled between the .350 WPA from Kurt Bevacqua’s three-run homer off Dan Petry in Game 2 of the 1984 World Series, which keyed the Padres’ lone win over the Tigers, and the .344 WPA from Al Weis‘ RBI single off Dave McNally in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the 1969 World Series, which gave the Miracle Mets their first win out of four over the Orioles. Rather garden variety in this context, had it not come in Game 7, which is what cWPA is capturing where ordinary WPA is not.

In tandem with the aforementioned slam off the Dodgers’ Joe Kelly, Kendrick’s home run put him on some other very cool lists. He’s 27th player in postseason history to hit multiple go-ahead homers in the seventh inning or later, and the 11th to do so in a single postseason:

Multiple Go-Ahead 7th-Inning-or-later Home Runs in One Postseason
Player Team Year Games
Troy Glaus Angels 2002 ALDS 1 & 2 (vs. Yankees), ALCS 3 (vs. Twins)
Casey Stengel Giants 1923 WS 1 & 3 (vs. Yankees)
Dave Henderson Red Sox 1986 ALCS 5 (vs. Angels), WS 6 (vs. Mets)
Kirk Gibson Dodgers 1988 NLCS 4 (vs. Mets), WS 1 (vs. A’s)
Mike Pagliarulo Twins 1991 ALCS 3 (vs. Blue Jays), WS 4 (vs. Braves)
Brian Jordan Cardinals 1996 NLDS 3 (vs. Padres), NLCS 4 (vs. Braves)
Alfonso Soriano Yankees 2001 ALCS 4 (vs. Mariners), WS 7 (vs. Diamondbacks)
David Ortiz Red Sox 2004 ALDS 3 (vs. Angels), ALCS 4 (vs. Yankees)
Kolten Wong Cardinals 2014 NLDS 3 (vs. Dodgers), NLCS 2 (vs. Giants)
Matt Adams Cardinals 2014 NLDS 4 (vs. Dodgers), NLCS 2 (vs. Giants)
Howie Kendrick Nationals 2019 NLDS 5 (vs. Dodgers), WS 7 (vs. Astros)
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Welcome to flavor country. Note that this list has been aided by the expanded postseason format. Stengel is the only player to have two such hits in one World Series, while Henderson, Gibson, and Pagliarulo were the only other ones to double up in a time before the Division Series were introduced. Glaus is the only player to have three such homers in a single October, part of a seven-homer binge that has only been surpassed by the eight apiece from Barry Bonds (2002 Giants), Carlos Beltrán (2004 Astros), and Nelson Cruz (2011 Rangers)

Back to Kendrick, there’s also this:

Home Runs in Multiple Sudden Death Games in One Postseason
Player Team Year Games
Ben Oglivie Brewers 1982 ALCS 5 (vs. Angels), WS 7 (vs. Cardinals)
Dwight Evans Red Sox 1986 ALCS 7 (vs. Angels), WS 7 (vs. Mets)
Didi Gregorius Yankees 2017 ALWC (vs. Twins), ALDS 5 (vs. Indians)
Anthony Rendon Nationals 2019 NLDS 5 (vs. Dodgers), WS 7 (vs. Astros)
Howie Kendrick Nationals 2019 NLDS 5 (vs. Dodgers), WS 7 (vs. Astros)
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

All told, the 36-year-old Kendrick hit .286/328/.444 with two homers and 12 RBI in the postseason, a modest line when compared to those of Rendon (.328/.413/.590 with three homers and 15 RBI) or Soto (.277/.373/.554 with five homers and 14 RBI). Yet such was the timing of his work that he outranked all but Soto in cWPA. Here’s this year’s top 10, which also includes pitchers:

2019 Championship WPA Leaders
Player Team Games Plays cWPA
Juan Soto Nationals 17 77 .411
Howie Kendrick Nationals 17 68 .303
Anthony Rendon Nationals 17 77 .292
Gerrit Cole Astros 5 142 .255
Zack Greinke Astros 5 111 .219
Stephen Strasburg Nationals 6 154 .209
Patrick Corbin Nationals 8 110 .165
Sean Doolittle Nationals 9 37 .147
Max Scherzer Nationals 6 134 .129
George Springer Astros 18 92 .122
SOURCE: Baseball Gauge

That’s one hell of an October run for Kendrick, a 14-year veteran who earned All-Star honors in 2011 and has battled through myriad injuries throughout his career, including a torn Achilles tendon last year. His body of work this month, and his clutch home run in Game 7, have earned him a permanent spot in postseason history.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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4 years ago

Three of the top-ten came from the same game – 1960 Game 7… damn!

Hank G.member
4 years ago
Reply to  booond

Yes, that was quite the game.