Howie Kendrick Drops the Mic

What strikes me most about Howie Kendrick’s career is how close we came to missing it entirely. The line drives, the slick grin, the home run that sealed the 2019 World Series and the epic celebration with Adam Eaton that followed: Were it not for a dutiful scout in the right place at the right time, we’d have missed it all.

As you’ve probably heard by now, Kendrick announced his retirement Monday afternoon. The 37-year-old is just a year removed from arguably the best season of his career, but he slumped badly in 2020 and suffered yet another hamstring injury in September. We can’t say for sure whether those two factors weighed on his mind when he decided to hang them up. But what we do know is that while he’s not going to have a plaque in Cooperstown, Kendrick was one of the best second baseman of his time. He retires with a ring, 30 WAR, and a starting spot on the “what do you mean that guy only played in one All-Star Game?” team.

Kendrick was born in Jacksonville and grew up in nearby Callahan. In high school, he was a good but undistinguished shortstop who graduated with no professional prospects. He was short back then, just 5-foot-7 at the time, and he didn’t even play summer ball. Nobody recruited him, and he actually got cut from a few junior college teams before landing at St. John’s River Community College.

The program at St. John’s has flourished in recent seasons, but when Kendrick made the team at the turn of the century it was an obscure baseball outpost with no recent history of producing talent. Tom Kotchman, an Angels scout in Florida then and the kind of baseball lifer who sneaks into these sorts of stories all the time, only saw him play by chance, thanks to a tip from another coach in the region. St. John’s wasn’t exactly a regular pit stop for him: He once quipped that “the last guy drafted out of that school went to Vietnam,” and while that isn’t true, you get the point he’s making.

Still, it didn’t take long for Kotchman to realize that Kendrick’s bat was special. He spent the spring hoping nobody else would stumble onto his sleeper, and when none did, his reports glowed brightly enough for the Angels to draft him in the 10th round.

Kendrick entered professional baseball as a bat-only player. He made outs on the bases, didn’t work the count, hadn’t developed power yet, and was extremely raw at second base. In a story from early in his career, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard revealed that Kendrick had never been taught even basic fundamentals — like how to cover bunts and execute rundowns — until he reached the minors. Initially, Kendrick wasn’t all that impressive. In the same story, Ballard quoted one of his minor league teammates who basically wrote him off: “To be honest, I never expected him to make it. Guys like him wash out all the time.”

But Kendrick had the one carrying tool that separates big leaguers from toolsy flameouts. With strong wrists, incredible hand eye coordination, and a smooth stroke that covered the entire plate, Kendrick was a nightmare for young pitchers. He needed a second spin in short season ball to prove it, but after mashing in the Pioneer League as a 19-year-old, Kendrick emerged as one of Anaheim’s best farmhands. He shredded both levels of A-ball in the next two seasons, topping his .376 average in the Midwest League with a .384 clip in Rancho Cucamonga. He reached Double-A as a 21-year-old in 2005 and after hitting well there and in that autumn’s Arizona Fall League, he had firmly established himself as a blue chip prospect.

Perhaps you raised an eyebrow when I referenced Kendrick’s batting average last paragraph. It’s not something we cite often here, but few players in recent memory have been as tied to a particular statistic as Kendrick was with batting average. It’s a rite of passage for hit-tool oriented players to be labeled as .300 hitters in waiting or future batting champions, and it’s something Kendrick shouldered throughout his career. Coming up through Anaheim’s system, he was “a batting title waiting to happen” and a player another scout said “may never hit below .300.” Nearly every profile from the first few years of his career references one of those markers, a habit that became something of a gag over the years in his Baseball Prospectus Annual comments.

Despite the scouting report, Kendrick’s first few big league seasons were choppy. He started poorly in 2006, as league arms exploited his tendency to swing early and often, and befuddled the rookie with a steady diet of breaking balls. A 3-26 start to his career forced the Angels to option him back to Salt Lake City, and while he returned two months later, he and Adam Kennedy split time at the keystone. He topped the .300 mark in both 2007 and 2008, but a minuscule walk rate kept him from being much more than an average hitter by wRC+, and he missed nearly half the year with injuries in each season. When his bat stalled out two months into the 2009 season, he was again demoted to Triple-A.

When Kendrick returned three weeks later, he spoke about how the demotion gave him a chance to reset and get back to fundamentals. Those sound like the kind of throwaway lines Crash Davis might have taught him, but if you squint, there’s some evidence of that kind of adjustment. That summer, he became a slightly more patient hitter. More importantly, that selectivity translated into better contact. His groundball rate dropped significantly, and he started hitting his trademark line drives with regularity. Over the season’s final three months, he hit .351/.387/.532 and from that point he was in the big leagues for good.

A tough home ballpark, higher than expected whiff rates, and an offensive depression in the early 2010s kept Kendrick’s batting average a hair under .300 throughout most of his prime. But by playing good defense and annually posting about a 110 wRC+, he became one of the best second basemen in the league anyway. He never quite captured that batting title scouts had predicted, but he smacked the tar out of the ball when he did make contact. He notched a .340 BABIP throughout his career, and while Statcast’s batted ball metrics didn’t appear until he was in his mid-30s, his exit velocities and hard hit rates were consistently solid.

In time, the leg injuries that held Kendrick back in the early part of his career ate into his vitality throughout his 30s. Never a durable player, his last 150-game season came in 2014. Alongside, his performance in the field dropped off as he aged and he cycled through teams and positions throughout the decade. He was traded three times for progressively underwhelming returns: First, he went to the Dodgers in exchange for Andrew Heaney, then to the Phillies in return for Darnell Sweeney and Darin Ruf , and then finally to the Nationals for McKenzie Mills.

But just as it looked like Kendrick’s career was petering out, he found new life in the capital. Injury problems, including a torn achilles in 2018, masked how well his bat had aged. Healthy again in 2019, he put together his finest campaign at the plate, batting .344/.395/.572, with the lowest strikeout rate of his career. He only batted 370 times, but his 17 homers were one short of a career high.

Of course, it wasn’t his regular season production that anyone remembers. After struggling at the plate and in the field all series, he memorably won the NLDS against the heavily-favored Dodgers with a 10th-inning grand slam to center field. He followed that up with a torrid NLCS, earning MVP honors by going 5-15 with four doubles and a series-high four RBI.

The best came last. In the seventh inning of Game 7 of the 2019 World Series, Kendrick stepped in against Will Harris with the go-ahead run on base. On an 0-1 count, Harris threw him a tough fastball, down and away right at the corner of the lower-outside quadrant. It was a pitcher’s pitch, and the kind of offering that hitters traditionally eschew unless they’ve got two strikes against them. But Kendrick could hit pretty much anything hard, and on this occasion, he went with the fastball, lining it off the bottom of the right field foul pole extension. The usually stoic Kendrick reeled off an animated home run trot, culminating with the aforementioned dugout celebration.

How did an oft-injured middle infielder fight off time and stay a productive hitter into his late-30s? How did such a throwback skillset mature like a fine wine in a radically new playing environment? The key to both may have been Kendrick’s finely tuned sensitivity to the subtle adjustment. The obvious example is with his swing. He came into the league as the rare right-hander with a pretty swing, a cut that was short to the ball and geared for hard contact to all fields. In the latter part of his career though, as hitters increasingly came to realize that there were real benefits to a swing with a steeper launch angle, Kendrick was able to adjust his. His launch angle rose approximately nine degrees from 2018 to 2019, and while it still wasn’t steep, the new bat path undoubtedly played a part in his home run surge.

But Kendrick also made the kind of mental adjustments that can help players avoid burnout in the course of a long season. In the beginning of his career, he was a gym rat, a guy who busted his tail before games and, according to one teammate, talked baseball non-stop. That’s good — at least, to a point. Amidst his early season struggles in 2009, Kendrick attributed some of his problems to pressing. He said at the time that he wanted “to go down and try to find myself, start attacking balls in the zone and be the same hitter I was. Sometimes we make this game harder than it is, and that’s what I’m doing right now.”

I can’t say with any confidence that he flipped a switch in the three weeks he was down in Triple-A. What we do know is that Kendrick matured well during his time in the league. The player who once pressed so badly that he had to go to Salt Lake City to get right turned into a well-rounded man who quotes Emerson, collects watches, and embraces his hobbies and responsibilities away from the field. He once said as much publicly, in a somewhat amusing rant amidst a rare rough stretch in his Dodgers days.

Wisdom, bat speed, and hand eye coordination are no match for time in the long run, though. Kendrick’s final season was a forgettable one. He only had 100 plate appearances, but didn’t play all that well when he made it onto the field, and his season prematurely ended after the umpteenth hamstring pull of his career. In his farewell announcement on Instagram, he didn’t give an explicit reason for the timing, but everything related to his 2020 campaign and the looming questions about next year’s season could have only pushed him in one direction. Count Kendrick among the players who prefer to decide their retirement over having someone else choose it for them.

As Kendrick hangs up his cleats, it’s worth circling back to the beginning and reflecting on what we’d have lost without him in the majors these past 15 years. Not just the statistics, though 30 WAR and a 109 career wRC+ are impressive achievements. It isn’t his postseason heroics either, though they have a distinct place in baseball history.

More than most sports, baseball is a game that can be played by anyone. That includes short kids with late growth spurts, and teens playing at far-flung schools, and it damn certainly includes Black players who grew up in circumstances that weren’t conducive to the travel circuit that attracts amateurs with wealthy families. As a late-bloomer who clawed his way on to a small-time junior program far removed from a scout’s usual stalking grounds, Kendrick is the exact kind of player teams are likely to overlook in an era increasingly defined by talent showcases, slashed scouting departments, and smaller minor league farm systems. That’s a shame. The game is a lot better when guys like Kendrick can play.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

Kendrick has long been one of my favorite players, and I know that if he had returned for 2021 and been healthy, he was going to hit. Alas it is not to be. But he had a great career, and nobody will ever forget his 2019 postseason. Watching him get huge hit after huge hit was one of my favorite baseball memories, and I am not even a Nationals fan. Nice career Howie.