Every contender should trade for this guy

June 18th, 2019

Here's a brief list of things that seem to be included in so many different articles about hitters breaking out that they almost seem to be routine at this point. Generally, you'll read that a hitter is...

• Striking out less
• Hitting the ball harder
• Hitting fewer grounders
• Pulling the ball more

... or some combination of the above. It's the way improvement in 2019 works. What you won't generally find is this last part:

• Doing it a few weeks before his 36th birthday, in his 14th Major League season

Now we've found something unique. Now we've found Howie Kendrick, who has gone from "longtime reliably steady Angels second baseman" to "useful bit player on playoff teams in Los Angeles and Washington" to "an outfielder, for some reason" to "suffering possibly career-ending Achilles injury" last year, and now, apparently, a multi-positional impact player and potentially very desirable trade candidate.

(That Achilles injury, by the way, is what motivated the Nationals to call up Juan Soto last year.)

Kenrick is doing all of those things listed above, of course, which is how he's hitting .333/.383/.602, the 14th-best line among 205 players with 190 plate appearances, and he's doing it while making starts at first, second, and third base. As we said: Those changes barely qualify as news at this point, but this is the part where we have to hit all those beats, the ones about how he's mashing the ball.

He's striking out a lot less (13.5%)

Kendrick was always decent enough at making contact; as an Angel, his 17.2% strikeout rate was slightly better than the 18.5% Major League average during that time. But in 2017, he tied his career high at 20.4%. That dropped a bit to 18.1% in 2018, then down again to 13.5% this year. That's among the 25 lowest in baseball, among those with as many plate appearances as he has, and when he swings in the zone, he makes contact 94.8% of the time -- higher than all but three other players.

He's hitting the ball a lot harder (51.3%)

Kendrick has never slugged higher than .480 in a full season. He's hit more than the 12 homers he currently has just twice -- 18 in 2011 and 13 in 2013. Power has never really been his game ... until now.

There are, currently, 160 players with at least 150 batted balls. Kendrick's hard-hit rate -- that is, how often he hits the ball with at least 95 mph of exit velocity -- is sixth. Seriously.

  1. Anthony Rendon, 3B, WSH: 55.8%
  2. Marcell Ozuna, LF, STL 53.0%
  3. Cody Bellinger, OF, LAD: 52.2%
  4. Jose Abreu, 1B, CWS: 52.1%
  5. Shin-Soo Choo, OF, TEX: 51.4%
    6) Howie Kendrick, INF, WSH: 51.3%

He's hitting fewer grounders (47.3%)

This is par for the course these days, of course. It's de rigueur. The only thing better than hitting the ball hard is hitting the ball hard in the air. That's never really applied to Kendrick, however. In his time with the Angels, he had one of the 20 highest grounder rates among qualifier hitters. From 2015-'17 with the Dodgers, Phillies, and Nationals, it was the second highest. In launch angle terms, he had a 1.2 degree mark in 2015-'17, the second lowest.

It's safe to say that's changed. Between 2006 and 2017, Kendrick's ground ball rate was 55.8%. Over the last two seasons, that's 47.4%.

And, of course, he's pulling the ball more, up to 36.7%, his highest since 2007, but when you just look at flies and liners, his 29.1 pull% is his highest ever. Just three years ago with the Dodgers, that was 11.5%. 

When you put the ball in the air more, with power, to your pull field, it looks like this.

Combine all that together, and you get more slugging. You get a lot more slugging, 13th-most among those 205 hitters, between Pete Alonso and Freddie Freeman, of all names. If that .602 slugging isn't likely to last all year long, it's not a fluke, either; his Expected Slugging Percentage, based on the usual outcomes of exit velocity and launch angle via Statcast, is .629. (You can think Lewis Brinson and Starling Marte, in part, for those missing points of slugging.) 

You also get a slugging percentage chart that looks like this, and makes it clear that this isn't just a suddenly-happening-in-2019 thing. It's been a few years coming. Over the last three years, Kendrick's .317/.364/.510 line is 39th of the 339 players with at least 500 plate appearances. He's been a new hitter, even if it's taken a while to notice.

Now, here's the hard part: How? How does an aging player who had long since established a baseline suddenly do this? It's fair to point to the fact that the ball is flying out of every yard in the game as explanation for some of the slugging, but that doesn't account for the contact, the hard-hit rate, the lack of grounders, the pull rate.

It's also the unsatisfying part. It seems unlikely that this has all happened by accident, yet try as we might, there's very little from Kendrick on the record about changes he's made. He certainly looks like so many other breakouts from the last few years. He just hasn't really talked about it like many of the rest have. (His Nationals teammates have stepped up to promote his inclusion on the All-Star team, though it's unlikely there would be room on the roster.)

Still, whatever the underlying reason is, Kendrick has somewhat unexpectedly made himself the kind of player most any contending team would find useful down the stretch. This assumes the 33-38 Nationals end up being sellers, of course, but sitting as they are in fourth place in the NL East (8 1/2 games behind the Braves) and ahead of only the Pirates, Reds, Giants, and Marlins in the NL Wild Card chase, it's hardly an unfair conversation to have.

Other than the Yankees, who have their own version of Kendrick -- a high-contact multi-positional righty veteran infielder -- in DJ LeMahieu, you could see him fitting anywhere. Think about him landing with ...

Red Sox: If we were to look at performance from righty hitters at first, second, and third base this year, sorted by team... no club in baseball ranks below the Red Sox. It wouldn't be hard to upgrade on Eduardo Núñez and his .214/.237/.286 line.

Brewers: Three months into the season, Milwaukee still hasn't figured out what's ailing first baseman Jesús Aguilar, hitting a mere .201/.305/.327 with five homers. While Eric Thames has stepped up in his stead, he's a liability against lefty pitchers, and Travis Shaw has been up-and-down since his return from the Minors. While the Brewers can and should bring back second baseman Keston Hiura, there's plenty of room here for good righty bat.

Rays: Tampa Bay was reportedly in on Edwin Encarnacion before he was traded to the Yankees, in part because lefty first baseman Ji-Man Choi is strictly a platoon player. It's worth noting as well that rookie second baseman Brandon Lowe is a lefty with big platoon splits of his own.

Astros: Do the Astros need another bat? When everyone is healthy, perhaps not, but they were also reportedly in on Encarnacion, in part because Tyler White is hitting just .229/.329/.326 (79 OPS+) and Yuli Gurriel isn't doing much better at .255/.288/.390 (80 OPS+). Rookie sensation Yordan Alvarez may solve the DH issues, but only three teams are getting less out of first base, and no team is getting less from their bench.

Cubs: Chicago's bench issues have become a topic of concern lately, and only five clubs are getting less from their bench. Kendrick wouldn't exactly take time away from Anthony Rizzo at first, but the second base combo of Addison Russell and Daniel Descalso is hitting all of .205/.290/.321, and this would help guard against the possibility that Ben Zobrist never makes it back. (It would also keep a bat away from Milwaukee, for what it's worth).

That's not a complete list, nor is it intended to be. You could see the Braves having bad memories about their completely non-existent bench from last year's postseason. You could imagine the Twins wanting to go all in on bats. You could see the Phillies being interested in a return engagement since neither Maikel Franco nor Cesar Hernandez have been terribly impressive.

That's the point, really. Kendrick, a highly regarded veteran with postseason experience, the ability to play several positions, and all of a sudden pounding the ball, would be highly coveted by a number of teams. He's the kind of player every contender wants. He's the kind of player that's so often so hard to find, even though the price is rarely that high.