After a breakout 2011 season and a big fat contract extension to match, the pressure is on for Howie Kendrick to live up to his once again lofty expectations in 2012. Is he up to the task or will he leave Angel fans wanting for more?
2011 Stats: 537 AB, .285 AVG, .338 OBP, .464 SLG, 86 R, 18 HR, 63 RBI, 14 SB, 6 CS, 119 K
2012 ZiPS Projections: 552 AB, .275 AVG, .320 OBP, .431 SLG, 77 R, 15 HR, 70 RBI, 15 SB, 6 CS, 105 K
2012 Bill James Projections: 571 AB, .287 AVG, .329 OBP, .441 SLG, 80 R, 14 HR, 74 RBI, 13 SB, 6 CS, 111 K
2012 CAIRO Projections: 509 AB, .279 AVG, .324 OBP, .427 SLG, 71 R, 13 HR, 64 RBI, 12 SB, 5 CS, 99 K
2012 PECOTA Projections: 644 PA, .283 AVG, .323 OBP, .418 SLG, 76 R, 12 HR, 75 RBI, 15 SB, 6 CS, 114 K
2012 MWaH Projections*: 545 AB, .290 AVG, .338 OBP, .454 SLG, 84 R, 16 HR, 79 RBI, 13 SB, 5 CS, 106 K
*The MWaH projections are simply my best guess based off my own personal opinion and research
2011 in Review: As you have no doubt been clubbed over the head with the last few months, Howie Kendrick had a breakout season with the bat. It wasn't the batting title that we have been promised so much since Kendrick was in the minors, but his .285/.338/.464 line was most definitely a revelation. The big number that jumps out is his 18 homers. Not to toot my own horn, but I kind of saw this coming. Sure, I predicted just 14 home runs, but that still would've been a career-high for him. Seeing him blow his previous high away with 18 was a surprise to everyone, probably even Kendrick himself.
It was that new-found power that allowed Howie to elevate himself to All-Star level, making the team for his first time. It also made him an indispensable part of the Angel lineup, at least when the power was actually flowing through his bat, which it wasn't always last year. Howie bashed six homers in the first month of the season only to see his home run stroke disappear for the next three months, hitting just two dingers in that span. But just when it was looking like his big April was a flash in the pan, Howie smacked six longballs in August and then four more in September and October. The jury may still be out on how much power he can maintain, but that strong finish to the season certainly suggests it is for real.
One aspect of Kendrick's season that shouldn't be overlooked is that he also had a breakout year as a fielder too. While his doubleplay partner Erick Aybar took home a Gold Glove last year, Kendrick probably had a better claim to such an honor. From a sabermetric standpoint, Howie had an elite defensive season with his 14.4 UZR and +15 DRS, both of which were third-best in the majors and likely would've been better had he been able to make 150 starts at second instead of just 105. For a guy who broke into the majors with some wondering if his defense was good enough, Kendrick has come a long, long way with the leather.
Three Lingering Questions for 2012:
- Was Kendrick's big 2011 campaign a fluke? This is the question that will dog him all season long. I certainly have my thoughts on the topic (be patient, its coming), but until he actually gets out on the field and starts producing (or not), nobody will know for sure.
- Can Howie finally get Scioscia to stop moving him around the field and sitting him for Izturis on occasion? Despite his continued growth as a player both with the bat and with the glove, Mike Scioscia keeps jerking with Kendrick. Last year, that featured Howie moonlighting in left field and first base and being benched regularly to create playing time for Maicer Izturis. But given his contract and the crowded Angel depth chart, doesn't Scioscia just have to leave Howie alone at second base everyday now? Or will we just see what new and creative reasons Sosh can use to justify benching one of his most productive overall players?
- Will he feel any pressure to live up to his new long-term contract extension? For most players, I would think this is a ridiculous question, but we have seen players buckle under the weight of big contracts before. And we have definitely seen Howie buckle under the pressure of expectations before, as we saw in the up-and-down early years of his career.
What to Expect in 2012: Going into writing this preview, I was dead certain that I was going to spend this section detailing all the reasons that Kendrick is certain to regress in 2012 because I was so certain that his 2011 breakout year was a fluke. But after doing the research, I seem to have talked myself out of it. Turns out I'm very convincing.
I thought for sure that all the power Kendrick displayed in 2011 was a classic case of him accidentally getting underneath a few balls that normally would've been doubles and accidentally turned them into homers. That might still be the case to some degree, but it also very much looks like Howie was just plain making better quality contact all around. What I would've expected to see was a slight uptick in his flyball rate and a dip in his line drive rate. What really happened though was the opposite, with Kendrick posting a career high line-drive percentage (21.9%) and the second-lowest flyball rate (26.5%) of his career. What that suggests is that he was just plain making better contact, which led to more home runs. Consider too that he did not pop-up to the infield AT ALL the entire season, and I think you get the point.
The other area of concern with Howie was that he saw a spike in strikeouts, another metric that would suggest that his season was a fluke, but again, we dig deeper and discover it might also be the opposite. Howie did strikeout in a career-high 20.4% of his plate appearances, but that was coupled with a career-best 5.7% walk-rate. Where this all makes sense is a look at his plate discipline according to Pitch f/x. Howie's 2011 season proved to be a lesson in "less is more." By that I mean that swinging at less balls out of the zone led to more production. Kendrick swung at 30.2% of pitches outside of the zone, by far the lowest percentage of his career. Perhaps I am making a leap of logic here (there is no perhaps, I definitely am), but considering what a great contact hitter Howie is, I believe in past seasons he was undermining himself by swinging at iffy pitches out of the zone because he is actually good enough to make contact and put them in play, but the quality of the balls in play with such pitches is lower, meaning he was either getting himself out or getting weak singles since he can't drive the ball as much. With Kendrick tightening up his strike zone more, he earned a few extra walks and got better pitches to drive with the negative side effect that he was in deeper counts that led to his spike in whiffs. It is definitely a trade-off, but one I think we would all invite Kendrick to make once again.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that Kendrick's overall contact rate suffered a small drop-off in 2011 as well. That little fact could blow up this entire theory of mine, but I am just hoping it is a symptom of the deeper counts he was facing, which meant he was getting more breaking balls. Howie has come a long way since his rookie season, but he still is more susceptible to being fooled by off-speed pitches than you would like to see.
With all of that in mind, my best guess for Howie is that he will regress to the mean a little bit, but still post All-Star caliber numbers and make the Angels more than happy about the long-term investment they made in him.
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