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July 14, 2014

The Buyer's Guide

Howie Kendrick

by J.P. Breen

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The Buyer’s Guide has been rolling along for the better part of two months at this point. I’ve been dishing out buy, hold and sell recommendations each Monday, and as your high school mathematics teacher likely reminded you dozens of times, it’s imperative to go back and check your work.

Past articles:

Of course, the individual context for each player is important and is contained within the article, but overall, it appears we’re doing reasonably well in this space. Pablo Sandoval has perhaps turned it on a bit more than I outlined in the article. The two “buy” candidates, though, would have been nice additions to your fantasy rotations, even if we do consider the small sample sizes that are inherent in any midseason heat check.

Y’all were not active on Twitter or in the comments section over the past week, which is cool. That simply means I chose the player upon whom to focus. If you have any particular requests for next Monday, simply utilize the comments section or drop me a line on Twitter (@JP_Breen). I’d like to select players from your suggestions, if possible. When I don’t have a plethora of reader suggestions, I simply wind up choosing someone like Howie Kendrick -- which perhaps sounds like I’m trying to punish you but that’s not the case. I promise. Sort of.

Let’s do this.

*****

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, the second base position has largely been a dumpster fire for fantasy owners this year. Dustin Pedroia and Jason Kipnis were supposed to be anchors, but they’ve disappointed, ranking 14th and 17th in ESPN leagues, respectively. Even Ben Zobrist, who is loved for his positional flexibility as well as his power-speed combination, has barely slipped into the top 20. Furthermore, Brandon Phillips has continued his slide in fantasy production, and he’s currently on the 15-day DL.

Thus, many owners are searching for ways to increase production from the second base and middle infield positions. Guys like Dee Gordon, Anthony Rendon, and Brian Dozier have been saviors for many teams, but other mid-tier options have become more attractive. Someone like Howie Kendrick currently ranks ninth among second baseman in ESPN leagues, and he’s hitting .289/.348/.386 on the year. The 31-year-old also benefits from the best lineup in baseball. No team has scored more runs than the Los Angeles Angels this year, which means he should have ample run and RBI opportunities.

In fact, if we look at Kendrick’s production coming into Sunday afternoon in each of the five main rotisserie categories, it’s easy to determine why he’s been valuable this year.

Roto Category

Statistic

2B Ranking

AVG

.289

8th

Runs

50

6th

RBI

43

6th

SB

10

8th

HR

4

22nd

Kendrick sits comfortably inside the top 10 in each of the main rotisserie categories, aside from home runs. He’s been supremely well- ounded and is on the fringes of being a legitimate five-category producer at a shallow position. It’s not a sexy package by any stretch. He won’t carry fantasy owners in any category. However, there’s also value in not hurting in any category.

He’s always been a high-average hitter. I have no qualms about projecting him to hit somewhere between .285 and .300 throughout the remainder of the year. He’s swiping a few more bags this year, but it doesn’t seem to be too far out of the ordinary. He may grab another 5-to-10 stolen bases. As mentioned earlier, the uptick in runs scored and runs batted in seems natural when one considers the potent Angels’ batting order. Considering he’s never scored more than 60 runs since 2011 and hasn’t driven in more than 70 since 2010, I’m hesitant to project too highly here. The fields shouldn’t go fallow, though.

In terms of real baseball, he’s showing nice progression in certain areas. He set a career-high by swinging at 41.2 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last year, but that number has fallen to a palatable 34.6 percent in 2014. His swinging-strike rate has similarly decreased to 9.3% and he’s walking more than ever before (7.3 percent). The overall approach at the plate appears to have taken a step forward from the 2013 season—not that he struggled last year, hitting .297 with 13 homers, but it points to a more mature approach and more sustainable production.

The question surrounds his power production. If he can threaten the 15-homer mark and stay relatively steady in other categories, he’s legitimately a top-10 fantasy second baseman with a little upside. And perhaps that’s not unreasonable to expect, either, as he’s hit double-digit homers in four of the past five seasons.

However, this doesn’t seem to be a normal season. It’s the All-Star break, and the veteran only has four homers. His .097 ISO is the worst mark of his career, and his average batted-ball distance lies in the middle of the pack. Should fantasy owners really expect his power production increase in the second half?

While the possibility exists—there’s certainly ample track record—I’m not willing to bet on it. The main reason lies in his batted-ball profile. His 61.9 percent ground-ball rate is the highest of his career and the 11th-highest in baseball (min. 100 PA). It becomes very difficult to produce quality power numbers without getting the baseball in the air with any consistency. Check out Kendrick’s past power production when juxtaposing it to his ground-ball rate:

Year

GB%

HR

2009

53.8%

10

2010

53.3%

10

2011

51.6%

18

2012

58.6%

8

2013

51.3%

13

2014

61.9%

4

The 2012 season represented a significant increase in his ground-ball rate, and that marked the only time since 2009 that he failed to reach double-digit homers. Looking at this season, his ground-ball rate has risen even more than it did in 2012. Understandably, the power numbers have suffered.

On the bright side, the increase in 2012 proved to be temporary. He reverted to normalcy a year later, and the double-digit power followed. Thus, his ground-ball fest in the first half could be a mirage. There’s an argument to be made for that, as his overall improved approach at the plate should seemingly result in more line drives and well-hit balls, not more grounders. However, it’s such a significant increase that I’m not willing to simply explain it away as a small sample outlier. Something has changed the last three seasons, and it’s caused his fly-ball rate to hover around 20-21 percent. It’s difficult to hit for much power with that type of batted-ball profile.

Without the power, Howie Kendrick is going to be heavily reliant on his high batting average and his runs/RBI stats. Even if a depressed second base market, that’s not a profile to spend assets on, especially when one does consider the fact that Kipnis and Pedroia should be expected to rebound some. He’s steady enough, but even then, he may not be more than a third- or fourth-tier option.

(Side note: Kipnis is hitting .319/.373/.340 with five stolen bases in the month of July. The lack of power is disappointing, but things are turning around.)

Buyer’s Advice: HOLD
I wanted to make this a “sell” because I’m not expecting a power surge in the second half due to the high ground-ball rate, but the remainder of the second base landscape makes it difficult to sell on a guy who is currently contributing in four of the five categories. The problem: the production in the runs, RBI and stolen base categories seem to be the best-case scenario at the moment, so if the production drops in one or two of those areas and the power doesn’t return, he’s no longer anything special. That’s not something for which fantasy owners should cash in assets. If you’re a Kendrick owner and don’t have depth at second base, though, I 100 percent support holding him and keeping the solid production as long as he provides it.

J.P. Breen is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see J.P.'s other articles. You can contact J.P. by clicking here

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