The Howie Kendrick comeback story

The 2019 season was a big one for Howie Kendrick. He played hero for the Nationals in the playoffs and helped lead them to claim a World Series title. Kendrick came up clutch time and time again.

He hit a go-ahead grand slam in the 10th inning of game five in the NLDS against the Dodgers which was a team that many believed would win it all. Kendrick hit a go-ahead home run in game seven of the World Series. Howie Kendrick lived the moment that we all dream about in our backyards when we are young. Kendrick’s impact on the Nationals goes past the numbers and what he did for them is truly something special.

I included a highlight real below that Major League Baseball made for Kendrick’s exceptional postseason performance. I encourage that you watch it and take notice of each situation that the game is in when he comes through at the plate. He came through in so many pivotal moments.

One part about Kendrick’s clutch postseason performance that goes overlooked is the fact that Kendrick had to work extremely hard to put himself into the National’s lineup.

At the prime of his career he was a big part of the Los Angeles Angels organization. He spent the first nine years of his career there before moving across town to join the Dodgers as a part of a trade. After a short stint there he was traded to the Phillies and eventually traded to the Nationals not long after.

The point to be seen here is that over the past several years Howie Kendrick has had to fight to be a part of a major league lineup. In 2017 Kendrick only played in 91 games. In 2018 he only played in 40 games. Injuries have played a role in this and as he entered his mid-thirties his ability to be productive came into question.

The 2019 season was a big one for Kendrick. As he entered the season at the age of 35 he had a spot in the National’s lineup. Although, once again he had to battle through injuries and spent two different stints on the injured list in 2019.

Kendrick battled through adversity though and had the best offensive season of his career. He played in 121 games which were the most by far since 2016. At the plate, Kenrick recorded a .400 wOBA, 126 wRC+, and a .395 OBP. He put up numbers that ranked among the best in the entire league.

To put into context just how much Howie Kendrick improved, his 2019 Offensive WAR was 20.6 which is the highest in his career by 4.9 wins. What Kendrick did in 2019 is nothing short of spectacular. How he did it is what I want to know. It’s not every day that we see a comeback story like Kendrick’s.

One of the biggest changes in Kendrick’s numbers was the huge dip in strikeouts. He cut his K% down to 13.2% which was the lowest of his career. In comparison to recent years, this was a huge dip. In 2017 he had a 20.4 K% and in 2018 Kendrick had an 18.1K%. With his K% taking a huge dip so did his Swing and Miss%, as expected.

It gets better too. The dip that he took in his In Zone Swing and Miss% is unreal.

In 2019, Howie Kendrick only missed 8.6% of the pitches that he swung at inside of the strike zone.

When I see such an extreme dip in these types of numbers I usually attribute part of it to a newfound ability to no longer swing at pitches outside of the zone. However, that’s not the case with Kendrick. When you look at his chase% and chase miss% charts there is no noteworthy change in numbers. I find this to be rather unexpected. When you see a change in a player’s ability to now hit the ball at a more frequent rate it is usually because of better plate discipline. When a hitter can cut back on his ability to swing at pitches outside of the zone they force the pitcher to throw more strikes and by default, they see more pitches that they can make contact with. This isn’t the case with Kendrick though.

His case gets even more interesting because in 2019 Kendrick saw less pitches inside the zone than in a long time.

So, not only did Kendrick stop chasing pitches but he saw even more pitches outside of the strike zone than usual. Meaning that if we were to look at the actual number of pitches Kendrick swung at outside of the zone, we should see a spike.

Somehow Kendrick has the exact same approach at the plate that he had had in recent years when in comes to plate discipline. The numbers behind Kendrick are truly staggering.

What you see above is Kendrick’s Statcast swing take profile. If you need a clearer image of it, I linked the webpage here. This is something that I discovered on Baseball Savant recently and it can be rather confusing at first. There are a lot of numbers and charts going on which can make it overwhelming. It is very informative though and Kendrick’s profile proves what I am saying. If anything, it reinforces my point even more.

Kendrick falls right at league average when it comes to swinging or taking pitches. Each hitter’s profile is broken down into four different zones (heart, shadow, chase, and waste). Within each zone, the hitter’s swing% and take% is calculated. In each of those four zones, Howie Kendrick is right at the league average. Meaning that his plate discipline is league average.

Where Kendrick provides value is in his run value section of his profile. When he swing’s at pitches in the heart he provides great value. On those pitches that he swings at he provides +14 runs.

Howie Kendrick has found a way to hit pitches more often and how he has done it comes down to a change in his swing. When I can’t find the answer to how a player reinvents himself in the numbers, I turn to the mechanics. What I found was the answer. Bo Porter does a fantastic job of breaking down the evolution of Kendrick in the video clip I included below.

Howie Kendrick didn’t reinvent himself by improving his plate discipline. Howie recreated himself by getting out in front of pitches and no longer constantly going the other way. As Porter said, this makes the baseball look huge to him and allows him to mash the baseball.

Kendrick’s ability to reinvent himself is truly amazing. He’s now almost 37 and his time left in the bigs is limited. However, his outstanding performance last season landed him a new contract with him making $6.25 million this season and potentially the season after as well as he has a mutual option as a part of his contract. Howie Kendrick is a player to watch in 2020 and as long as he stays healthy I see no reason why he can’t replicate last year’s performance.