The Most Quietly-Excellent Aspect of the Quietly Excellent Howie Kendrick

Look at three pictures. They’re all from the same play, and it would appear to be a fairly unremarkable play. But it was a remarkable play indeed, for reasons I’ll share. If you want to make a game of it, when you look at the pictures, try to figure out the significance before I tell you what it is!

Let’s go in order. What other way is there? One:

Two:

Three:

Some of you have surely guessed why this matters. Most of you, presumably, haven’t. This is a sequence in which Howie Kendrick popped up. More specifically, this features the very last time that Kendrick popped up. For timing purposes, I don’t spot useful visual clues — Jonathan Villar, Marwin Gonzalez and David Martinez all played for the Astros in 2014. But, see, I can cheat, because I know the answers. This didn’t happen anywhere in 2014. This happened in the middle of September in 2013. Kendrick hasn’t hit a pop-up since September of the year that came before last year.

So Kendrick didn’t pop-up once over a full season. Now, he wasn’t the only one. Last year, Shin-Soo Choo didn’t register a pop-up. Neither did Joe Mauer. Christian Yelich only popped up on the very last day of the season. But, Kendrick batted a lot more often than Choo or Mauer. And, this isn’t just a 2014 phenomenon. It’s not just that Kendrick didn’t pop up — it’s that Kendrick has always only very seldom popped up. And that’s an indicator of the very thing that makes him successful at the plate.

It’s not going to happen now that the Yankees signed Stephen Drew, but briefly, it looked like Jose Pirela was going to battle with Rob Refsnyder to start at second base in New York. Late last year, Pirela got a very short cup of coffee, appearing in seven games and batting 25 times. Over those 25 trips to the plate, Pirela collected three pop-ups. Kendrick has hit a total of three pop-ups since Sept. 4, 2010. In other words, over more than four full years, Kendrick has popped up thrice. He’s not the only player who excels at this, but it’s a small group, and Kendrick doesn’t call a lot of attention to himself.

Kendrick debuted in the majors in 2006. Since then, 517 players have batted at least a 1,000 times. In terms of infield flies per flyball, Kendrick’s posted the second-lowest rate in baseball, at 1.7 percent. The only player better is Joey Votto, at 1.5 percent. Votto has earned much recognition for his ability to avoid such easy outs. Votto, in fact, takes it hard when he flies out to an infielder. Since 2006 the median rate is 9.5 percent.

It might be suggested that Kendrick arrived in his prime in 2011. Since then, 286 players have batted at least a 1,000 times. In terms of infield flies per flyball, Kendrick’s posted the second-lowest rate in baseball, at 0.8 percent. The only player better is Mauer at 0.6 percent.

We have this information going back to 2002, which gives us a sample size of almost 2,000. There have been six player years in there in which a batter didn’t hit a single pop-up. Kendrick is responsible for two of those years. Kendrick is a lot of things; pop-up machine isn’t one of them.

Of course, avoiding pop-ups isn’t the goal. Anyone could go up and deliberately not hit a pop-up. The goal is to hit the baseball and to hit the baseball hard. That’s why it’s so remarkable that Kendrick almost never makes an easy infield out in the air. Perhaps you’re familiar with the statistic Batting Average on Balls In Play, or BABIP. There’s a pretty strong relationship between BABIP and infield-fly rate, as very recently demonstrated by Carson Cistulli. This makes enough sense — a pop-up is essentially an automatic out. Avoiding them means the batter is avoiding automatic outs, and it also suggests the given player is able to barrel up on the ball more often. Kendrick, to date, has managed a career .341 BABIP. The league average has been around .300. Though Kendrick has a long way to go in his career, I’ll note that Tony Gwynn finished with a career .341 BABIP. Kirby Puckett, .342. Wade Boggs, .344. Kendrick has built his career so far on being a line-drive factory. It’s placed him among some notable peers.

When he was in the minors, Kendrick was regarded as an upper-level prospect, because he just couldn’t stop hitting. He didn’t walk much, and didn’t hit for a ton of power, but in Double-A batted .342. In Triple-A he batted .355. Overall in the minors, he batted .360, and he was always pretty young for his level. With a lot of players with elevated batting averages, one might consider regression, because elevated batting averages are hard to sustain. Yet Kendrick possesses that rare skill to actually, sustainably hit the ball hard on a line. This has always been a part of what he is, and that’s helped make him one of the premier second basemen in the game.

Let’s consider the last four years one more time. We’ll take this to represent Kendrick’s offensive peak. I took all the players who, since 2011, have batted at least a thousand times. I then honed in on just those players with infield-fly rates no higher than 2.5 percent. Remember Kendrick’s come in at 0.8 percent. To further narrow down, I eliminated all the players with higher-than-average strikeout rates. Then I eliminated all the players with lower-than-average rates of home runs per flyball. That narrowing down of the player pool left us just two players:

  • Howie Kendrick
  • Joey Votto

Votto, of course, has been the more productive hitter — he walks a ton, and he’s hit for more power than Kendrick. But Votto is also the only other player to meet the above standards. It’s just an unusual skillset, and while maybe Kendrick could walk more, altering his approach might jeopardize his ability to sting the ball, and for the time being nothing needs changing. His power has to some extent been limited by having played half the time in Anaheim, which is a pitcher-friendly environment. Hilariously enough, Anaheim’s ballpark has also inflated pop-up rates. Kendrick’s new home in Los Angeles is considerably more neutral.

Kendrick’s a broadly skilled player. He does have homer power. He can help some on the bases. He’s reasonably durable, and he’s a good defensive second baseman. It’s the whole package of everything that makes Kendrick as valuable as he is. But where he really stands out is in terms of consistently making quality contact. It’s the simplest advice to give a hitter, but it’s some of the most difficult advice to obey. Sure, Kendrick makes outs. He makes outs roughly twice as often as he makes non-outs. But easy outs? Those are the ones Kendrick avoids. That’s how one can be a good hitter despite four times as many strikeouts as walks. It isn’t an approach for everyone, but it’s very obviously an approach for Kendrick.