One Final Rewind for Jason Kendall

[Image by Justin Bopp]

After one of the lamest comeback attempts in recent memory (Manny Ramirez probably takes that trophy home), Jason Kendall has retired. While Kendall’s last few seasons were pretty miserable performances (although that did not stop the Royals and Brewers from marching him out there as much as they possibly could — indeed, Kendall insisted on it), he was quite good for a long time before bottoming out. Kendall is no Hall of Famer, but his career holds up pretty well against some of his more celebrated contemporaries. He had some bad times at the end, a testimony to the elusive-but-ever-present charms of “veteran catcher.” However, without delving into the salacious details of his personal life or discussing his tremendous way of handling tough questions from the press, it is worth recalling how much Kendall managed to accomplish in his distinguished career.

There is no point in just running down the statistical contours of Kendall’s career, which can be easily looked up on his player page. Instead, I would rather pick out some things that I think are worth pointing out.

It should be made clear that, yes, he really was terrible during his last few major-league seasons. In 2007, he was almost a win below replacement level. He did rebound to 2008 with the Brewers (in large part because opposing teams tested it too often — gotta mix it up, guys) but after 2006, his bat basically died. By 2010, his 78 wRC+ was not even “okay for a catcher.”

Of course, looking at the WAR figures for those last couple years, he at least looks useful at about one win a season. Never mind that he was playing as many games as any catcher in baseball (until his season- and, eventually, career-ending injury in 2010). Some would also point out that WAR and similar metrics, even after accounting for controlling the running game and blocking pitches, do not include much of what is considered to be part of the “defensive” job of the catcher, like, say, pitch framing. That is true — and one of the reasons why veteran catchers like Kendall have long had such appeal.

Recent research enables us to (dramatic pause)… rewind ourselves. Path-breaking work has been done on pitch framing, and if we look at Mike Fast’s numbers, we do find Jason Kendall… near the bottom (the “0” for 2011 is for the year he did not play.). While 2008 still looks good, combined the FanGraphs WAR numbers, the -10 for 2010 would put him right around replacement level with the Royals and the -19 with the Brewers in 2009 would put him about a win below. The lousy performance, combined with the irritating stories about Kendall and Willie Bloomquist (naturally) wanting to form an Olympic Bobsled team (would that interfere with Kendall’s music career?) put him right next to Yuniesky Betancourt in the doghouse of Royals fandom. The Royals, always with their fingers on the pulse of the fanbase, managed to find time to honor Kendall with a special ceremony before a game.

Image by BHIndepMO

It is understandable why fans (including myself) get irritated with such stuff, but we should not let it obscure how good such players were in their prime. Kendall was an excellent younger player, but even after his brutal ankle injury in 1999 and during post-Pirates years, he was useful to some pretty good teams. While Kendall probably was not a defensive whiz, he could certainly play catcher — he usually did not kill his teams behind the plate. In his younger years he was not just a “good hitter for a catcher,” but a good hitter period.

It was not just that he was a “good hitting catcher” that made him stand out, but his particular skill set. The stereotype of the offensive catcher (with a few obvious exceptions) is a high-strikeout, high-power guy. Kendall usually had around league average walk rates most years, but he also hardly struck out at all. Even after his (modest) power left him for good after the 2000 season, he still maintained a high enough average to be a productive offensive player. As late as 2004 (his last season in Pittsburgh), he had a 111 wRC+ on a .319/.399/.390 line — shades of Richie Ashburn. In his later Pirates years he was useful as a rare catcher who hit first.

How does Kendall’s overall career stack up against some of his contemporaries? Obviously, Kendall is no Mike Piazza or Ivan Rodriguez, who are obvious Hall of Famers (if you ask me, which you didn’t, but this is my post, so…). But how about other famous catchers who had good careers?

Jason Varitek had a similar reputation for “grittiness” and “leadership” to Kendall’s, but received much more attention because he played for the Red Sox. However, Kendall pretty clearly was the better player. If you think there are too many “tricks” in WAR, let’s just look at their three best offensive seasons by wRC+ (minimum of 500 plate appearances: Varitek’s are 126, 124, and 119; Kendall’s are 140, 126, and 121.

The comparison with Jorge Posada is more interesting. I personally do not think Posada is worthy of the Hall of Fame (although I know some reasonable people disagree), but he was a tremendous player. I would give him the edge over Kendall for the superior peak and hitting, but it is surprisingly close. Kendall’s career is closer to Posada’s than Varitek’s. That is not an insult to any of of the three players, it simply highlights how good Kendall’s career really was.

Let’s move on to a Neyer-ism: here are two players’ career lines through their age 25 seasons.

Player A: 2004 plate appearances, .312/.399/.451
Player B: 2388 plate appearances, .317/.399/.457

Pretty close, huh? Player A is, of course, Jason Kendall. Player B is Joe Mauer. Things changed for each player after 25, as Mauer has more power for his career (even if his 28 home runs in 2009 are becoming something of a distant memory), and Kendall’s power fell off of a cliff soon after our arbitrary endpoint. Still, it does give an idea of just how exciting a player Kendall was at that point in his career. It’s too bad Kendall had to start splitting time at first base and designated hitter and had such a huge contract. Oh, wait…

Another interesting tidbit about Jason Kendall: he actually went to the playoffs three consecutive seasons with three different teams. The last time was in 2008, when he had his last truly useful season with the Brewers. That was the last time the Brewers went “all in,” trading a bunch of prospects for CC Sabathia and firing imploding manager Ned Yost (~!) about two weeks before the end of the regular season.

The year before that, in 2007, Kendall was horrible, and was traded by Oakland to the Cubs mid-season. The Cubs had just dropped big money on players like Alfonso Soriano (who was great that year) and Ted Lilly in free agency and managed to win the Central. Kendall was a bit player down the stretch for team, although he did start one game in the playoffs.

Kendall first made the post-season with the 2006 As. Some people have argued that the original “Moneyball Era” Oakland teams were not really Billy Beane’s creation. The 2006 team definitely bore his stamp. Joe Blanton was part of Beane’s notorious “Moneyball Draft,” and Dan Haren was a trade acquistion of Beane’s. Nick Swisher was the best position players on the team, and he was part of that same famous draft class. Eric Chavez was still around and productive, Milton Bradley had a good year, as did scrap-heap acquisition Frank Thomas, who hit 39 home runs. But the third-most valuable position player on the team, according to WAR, was Jason Kendall, who finished the season with a .367 on-base percentage.

That is simply to point out that although Kendall’s most individually productive years were spent in the relative obscurity of Pittsburgh, he did not simply suffer on bad teams his whole career, and was a significant contributor to two playoff teams.

To wrap up this disjointed series of tidbits about Jason Kendall’s illustrious (seriously) career, we should rewind ourselves back to his time in Pittsburgh to take a quick look at his biggest hit according to Win Probability Added. Way back in April 2001 the Pirates were locked in a struggle with the Cubs. It was an instant classic started by Jimmy Anderson and Julian Tavarez. Not only Jason Kendall, but Brian Giles and the legendary Derek “Operation Shutdown” Bell were in the lineup for Pittsburgh. At the end of nine innings, the teams were tied at two runs apiece. Gary Matthews, Jr. led off the top of the tenth with a home run to put the Cubs ahead. In the bottom of the inning, the Pirates managed to get a runner on with one out. Jason Kendall knew what he had to do, and drilled a walk-off home run (.784 WPA).

We hoped you liked reading One Final Rewind for Jason Kendall by Matt Klaassen!

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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A sad day for Ned Yost.