Howie Kendrick Is the Kind of NLCS MVP You Want to See

This could be the story of a kid with an awkward swing getting cut from his junior college ball team and never playing again, but it isn’t.

This could be the story of a rookie who debuted with the Angels by starting a slick double play, but never learned to hit, got sent back to the minors, and lived out the rest of his baseball days eating peanut butter and jelly and not hearing the phone ring.

But it’s not that either.

This could be the story of a young player who got spread too thin as his team experimented with playing him all over in the infield. “Things happen everyday in baseball,” Howie Kendrick told the L.A. Times in 2006. “One day I might be an outfielder. I’m open to moving anywhere.” And he did. He’s played 190 games in the outfield, so far.

This could be the story of a talented hitter trapped behind a middle infield logjam at the top of the Angels’ farm system. Or buried in their lineup under 700 pounds of struggling sluggers named Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and Mark Trumbo.

Or a debatable starter who became the smiling face on the poster for “Batting Average Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story.” Or a veteran infielder relegated to the corners, sideswiped by strained hamstrings and a sore abdomen.

But it’s not any of things. Not entirely, anyway.

Last week, the 106-win Dodgers found themselves stifled by the Nationals, unable to break through against their pitching staff or keep pace with their offense, and wound up asking themselves, “…what happened?

Last night, the Cardinals succumbed to a Nationals team seemingly steered by fate — though the dominant pitching helps — that forced them to break their promise that they would “f— up” their opposition in the NLCS; they too were left asking themselves, “…what happened?

The answer is that during the 2019 postseason, Howie Kendrick happened. So this is a story about that.

Of course, other things happened, too. The Nationals rotation happened very, very hard to both L.A. and St. Louis. But the story of a playoff series can be at least partially told by who is holding the hardware at the end, which brings us back to Kendrick.

Entering this season, Kendrick was a 35-year-old utility player who’d come up lame with a hamstring twang early in spring training. The Nationals left him behind in Florida to rehab, and while GM Mike Rizzo didn’t view the injury as “catastrophic,” it wasn’t the way Kendrick or his team had wanted him to begin the year. Fortunately for all of them, this was probably the low point of Kendrick’s season. He rejoined Washington on April 6 and proceeded to hit from both sides of the plate, at home, and on the road; he logged the highest wRC+ of his career at 146, walked more with a 0.6 BB/K, and outpaced his Steamer-projected WAR total with 2.9 (it had him at 2.4) in 121 games.

On July 12, his 36th birthday, Kendrick pinch hit and led off the top of the ninth inning with a single, coming around to score an insurance run in a 4-0 win over the Phillies. The hamstring came back to haunt him in August, but he returned in September to help complete the Nationals’ dominant second half; from September 15-22, he had five multi-hit games, including falling a double short of the cycle on September 18.

So it wasn’t so wild that Dave Martinez put him on the playoffs roster.

But it didn’t start as an MVP postseason for Kendrick. He contributed a groundball single to the Nationals’ win over the Brewers in the NL Wild Card game. He had a few balls clank off him at first base in Game 1 of the NLDS, helping the Dodgers to a 6-0 win. But he was always there, lurking the background: His single was the first run the Nationals knocked in against Clayton Kershaw in Game 2; he singled to load the bases for a run-scoring HBP of Yan Gomes in Game 3; he scored on a Ryan Zimmerman bomb in Game 4; and then, he benefited from Dave Roberts’ passionate belief in Joe Kelly in Game 5. With the game tied, Kendrick was just trying to get the ball out of the infield while facing Kelly with the bases loaded, but he managed to get it a little further. And suddenly, all of his small, consistent contributions became part of a bigger story; the flubs faded from memory.

Onward to St. Louis, with a fully weaponized Howie Kendrick stepping into the box backed by the sound of missile priming as a career .338 hitter at Busch Stadium. In Game 1, he knocked in half the Nationals’ runs in a 2-0 victory. He suffered through an 0-for-4 day with two strikeouts in Game 2, but came back in Game 3 with a clutch two-run double off a rapidly deflating Jack Flaherty as part of a three-hit night that put him alongside a triumvirate of Hall of Famers.

Kendrick was an All-Star one time, eight years ago. He got a few AL MVP nods five years ago. In the twilight of an impactful career in which he never quite broke out all the way, his reliable production has led to teams like the Dodgers and Phillies trying to make him their missing piece. In Washington, the Nationals seem to have found one. After all, they’ve have been to the postseason before. They’ve brought an airtight rotation before. They’ve brought team chemistry before. They’ve brought elite, young hitting talent with a signature style before. But beyond giving him two at-bats in the 2017 NLDS, they haven’t really been here with Howie Kendrick before — not with as much of him as they’ve seen this year, anyway.

In Game 4 of a breezy NLCS, Kendrick didn’t play a central role. He was intentionally walked and scored a run. But his position as a background lurker who hit himself into the spotlight made him the fifth NLCS MVP from his age bracket in baseball history.

This isn’t quite an MVP from nowhere. There were more likely candidates on the Nationals, and even some more charming narratives. But Kendrick was here on purpose, not a veteran on his last gasp or a gift from a GM who knew him from the scrap heap. You need a Howie Kendrick for the final push, for the key hit, for the power surge from nowhere. You expect Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto to be your heroes. When a 36-year-old corner infielder with a wonky hamstring is driving your offense, you know you’re getting production from the margins. That’s what might win you a championship.

That’s why this isn’t a story about a kid who got cut in college or never made it out of the minors.

Because that awkward swing turned into what the The Daily Herald in Provo, Utah called “a major league batting title waiting to happen” in June 2006. That double play Kendrick started in his big league debut was the first of 621 he’d turn, which is 10th among second basemen since 2006. He hasn’t been demoted to the minors based on performance in a decade. As he’s aged out of the middle infield, his versatility across the diamond has become a strength. He’s been able to find production no matter who has hit in front of or behind him. And injuries may have taken him off the field, but never kept him off it.

And so, this is a story about a team that picked up a grizzled first baseman before the season. Because they did, their story is far from over.

Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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4 years ago

Love me some Kendrick. Redemption. Putting up big numbers in his twilight years. All things that I like in baseball.