How many times have we heard over the last few years how lucky the Angels are? Since the explosion of stat-centric projects systems like ZiPS and CHONE and the increased focus on things like Pythagorean W-L, the Angels are the poster boy for over-achieving teams. Most writers attribute it to some sort of random luck (or voodoo perhaps, Ervin?), and the conclusion is that the Angels have come out on the good side of the dice rolls much more often than not. We can spend (and have spent) hours debating how this is possible and whether these systems are stupid or incredibly stupid. But mainly I wanted to point out one Angel (my favorite now that GA and Chone have left the team) who has not reaped the benefits of luck, particularly this year. That is one Mr. Howard Kendrick.
If you look at Howie’s slash line this season (Avg./OBP/Slg.), you will not be impressed. It sits at: .261/.294/.385. That OBP in particular is rather hideous. His OPS+ sits at a Dick Schofield-esque 81. Those numbers would be okay if he were a fantastic glove-man at second base (he’s not, although this season may just be an off year, as he’s been above average each season of his career until this point). They also wouldn’t be terrible if we hadn’t been continuously fed the “Howie will be a future batting champion” line, along with getting teased by his potential during injury-riddled seasons to begin his career.
Expectations are high, actual performance not so much. So what happened? Is this just who Howie is? Is he hitting poorly? The answer to those two questions is a resounding no. The man is just incredibly unlucky this season.
The reason I was prompted to do this research was seeing Howie get robbed (again) yesterday on what looked like a sure base hit. As I watched Franklin Gutierrez make a fantastic catch on a Howie drive into left centerfield, I shook my head. Can’t this guy catch a break? So I looked at the numbers because I was curious; just how unlucky is our favorite big screen TV salesman?
The short answer: pretty damn unlucky. Howie’s Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABiP) is .288 this year. Not only is that below the league average of .296, but it’s WELL below his career BABiP of .342 (.356 before this season). A .342 BABiP is pretty high, and Howie has only had the equivalent of two seasons worth of plate appearances. But it’s not THAT high, especially for a line drive hitter with good speed who uses the whole field. The player who I immediately thought of as a comparison for Kendrick is Michael Young, a similar hitter in that he likes going the other way and up the middle, doesn’t have a ton of power, and hits a lot of line drives. Young’s career BABiP is .338. So I think it’s safe to say that Howie’s .340 BABiP isn’t outside of the realm of possibility, and even makes a lot of sense given the type of hitter he is.
But maybe BABiP doesn’t tell us the whole story; it could be that Howie’s BABiP is terrible because he’s not hitting the ball well, and it’s making it easier for the defense to make plays on him. It turns out that’s not the case either. Howie’s line drive percentage is 20.6%, which is both above the league average of 19% and above his career rate of 17%. Someone hitting as many line drives as Kendrick is should be getting more base hits, plain and simple. It is also true that Howie is hitting more fly balls than normal (31.7% vs a career rate of 29.1%), which does tend to decrease batting average (ground balls and line drives go for base hits more often than fly balls), but that shouldn’t be causing this drastic of a decrease. If anything, the increase in fly ball rate should even out with the increase in line drive rate in terms of the effect it has on his BABiP.
"Now hold on," someone may say. "When you have a hitter this aggressive, this is what you get!" Fair enough. I can’t deny that Kendrick is aggressive; he starts itching and sneezing every time the count gets to three balls. His walk percentage this year is right on track with his career rate of 3.6% (which is not good), and has actually gone down from last year’s rate of 5.0%. It is obvious Howie likes to swing the bat, but it’s also obvious that his aggressiveness hasn’t hurt his batting that much in the past – he was a .302 hitter with a .434 slugging percentage through last season. Plus there are some plate discipline figures that tell me Howie is IMPROVING his plate discipline, rather than regressing. He is swinging at 29.7% of pitches outside the zone, which is well down from his career rate of 34.7%. This is progress. He’s also swinging at 58.8% of pitches IN the zone, which is down from his 66.0% career rate. The good thing about this is that it shows he’s being more selective and trying to hit HIS pitch rather than the pitcher’s. The negative side of this is that it’s putting him in worse counts that give the pitcher more flexibility. All in all, though, selectivity is a good thing. The guy we universally praise for his plate discipline, Mr. Abreu, swings at 56.0% of pitches in the zone (since 2002 when this data became available). (Note: Mr. Abreu also only swings at 14.1% of pitches outside the zone, so Howie still has a little work to do.). So if Kendrick is being more selective, is it helping? Outside of the increased line drive rate, it has also helped lower his strikeout rate from 19.0% last year (17.2% career) to 14.2%, which is very good progress.
So let’s review: Howie is hitting more line drives than ever, is being more selective at the plate, and is striking out less. But instead of having a career year, he’s having the worst season of his life! Why? Because as Franklin Gutierrez showed us yesterday, Howie’s hitting those line drives right at people, and it’s led to an absurdly low (for him) BABiP. So while the Angels may be getting lucky in other ways, Kendrick certainly isn’t…yet. The upside is that we should expect some of these line drives to start falling for singles and doubles. As an added bonus, the increase in fly balls might help Kendrick hit a few more home runs as the weather warms up.
Howie Kendrick’s batting stats may look pretty terrible right now, but don’t worry! If I know anything from what the Interwebs say, it’s that the Angels are lucky, and that’s gotta rub off on our second baseman at some point!