WASHINGTON -- Howie Kendrick's teammates believe he should be an All-Star. Manager Dave Martinez has gone out of his way to mention it, more than once, in the past few weeks. It’s an unofficial campaign going around the Nationals' clubhouse. They all marvel at how Kendrick, who will turn 36
WASHINGTON -- Howie Kendrick's teammates believe he should be an All-Star. Manager Dave Martinez has gone out of his way to mention it, more than once, in the past few weeks. It’s an unofficial campaign going around the Nationals' clubhouse. They all marvel at how Kendrick, who will turn 36 next month, is putting up the best season of his career.
“He’s unbelievable,” right fielder Adam Eaton said.
“I look at 36-year-olds that I know personally, they’re sitting on the couch having a beer, and I’m like, this guy has no business doing what he’s doing in the big leagues … I can’t say enough about it, you talk about All-Star and whatnot, send that guy to the All-Star Game.”
No Nationals position player made it to the final round of voting to start the 2019 All-Star Game, but Kendrick wasn’t even on the official ballot. Reserves for both squads -- totaling 24 for the NL and 23 for the AL -- will be determined through a combination of “Player Ballot” choices and selections made by the Commissioner’s Office. Kendrick did not enter the season as one of the Nats’ eight projected starting position players, a nod to just how improbable his red-hot first half has been.
Kendrick has always been a talented hitter, but it’s also a testament to some subtle changes to his swing and approach at the plate. The new approach is not a full-blown overhaul, but simply minor adjustments that have had a major effect.
“I haven’t done anything state-of-the-art," Kendrick said.
In 63 games, Kendrick has posted a slash line of .335/.388/.588 for a 146 OPS+. He has bounced around the infield, filling in at third base for 13 games while Anthony Rendon was injured, splitting time at second base for 16 games when Brian Dozier was struggling. Kendrick has also played in 18 games at first base, helping to fill in the gaps for Matt Adams and Ryan Zimmerman’s injuries. Kendrick’s 12 home runs this season are the most he’s hit since he clubbed 13 in 2013, and he is on pace to smash his career high of 18, set in '11. That was also the only year in his career that he made the All-Star team.
“It's a blast,” Kendrick said last week. “It’s pretty cool to be recognized by your peers as one of the best players in the game and it’s a nice accolade to have … It’s cool, I appreciate it, the fact that my teammates think that way of me. I think that’s what’s important, having the respect of the league and respect of your teammates.”
For Kendrick, that’s enough. He appreciates the support from teammates, but at this stage in his career, another All-Star game appearance is not something he is willing to put a lot of weight into. Then again, few could have predicted Kendrick would be able to unlock a next level at this stage of his career.
It started before the 2018 season. After Kendrick re-signed with the Nationals in January, one of the first things he did was reach out to Kevin Long, who had just been hired as the Nats' hitting coach. Both Long and Kendrick live in Arizona during the offseason, and they have a connection because Kendrick’s brother-in-law went to the same high school as Long. Kendrick had been traded to Washington during the middle of the '17 season, becoming teammates with then-Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy. Naturally, the two began talking hitting.
“Me and Daniel were like the same type of hitter,” Kendrick said. “But he was left-handed.”
So, this was Kendrick’s chance to learn from the man Murphy credited with revitalizing his career. No, Kendrick does not consider himself a complete disciple of the so-called “launch-angle revolution” (even though he is currently hitting fewer grounders, hitting the ball harder and pulling the ball more). He insists his swing has basically not changed. With Long’s assistance, however, Kendrick is standing closer to the plate, cutting down on the high leg kick from earlier in his career and striding more directly toward the pitcher.
“He was always really good barrel to ball, always,” Long said. “Now he’s got the ability to take an inside pitch and drive it out of the park. Whereas before, basically all his damage was done on offspeed [pitches]. On anything in, he’d kind of fight it and inside-out it and hit the ball the other way.”
Kendrick began seeing some of the fruits from those adjustments at the start of 2018, when he was hitting .303/.331/.474. Then he tore his right Achilles tendon that May, an injury that led to the Nats calling up Juan Soto.
This season, Kendrick finally feels like he’s seeing the work pay off. And that’s why Long is not surprised to see Kendrick thriving, even in his 14th Major League season, approaching his 36th birthday and coming off a major surgery.
“It’s amazing,” Long said laughing. “Honestly if he doesn’t barrel it up, I’m shocked. That’s where we’re at.”
With Kendrick playing so well, it can be tempting to put him in the lineup in an everyday role. And every time his name is absent from the lineup, Nats fans respond in uproar.
But Kendrick understands his days as an everyday player are behind him. He is in constant dialogue with the coaching staff and Martinez, who is often quick to point out that he has to keep Kendrick healthy. Perhaps the key to maintaining this pace at the plate is to keep Kendrick's body as fresh as possible.
“I’ll be 36 this year and there’s no secret, my body hurts from time to time,” Kendrick said. “I don’t think there’s an ability for me to go out and play every day anymore. The way they’ve been using me, Davey and everybody have done a great job of giving me the days off that I need. Because I wake up some days and my body feels like crap, but I know I’m probably gonna pinch-hit or possibly go in the game, so I can still do those things. But every day? I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it every day and that’s no secret.”
And yet, even in limited playing time, the Nats can make a compelling case that Kendrick should be one of the players honored on the NL All-Star team.
“I know he’d love to go back to Phoenix for four days and enjoy his family,” Eaton said. “But send him to Cleveland. We want to see him there.”