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July 26, 2012

In A Pickle

The Story Of Jason Kendall's Conception

by Jason Wojciechowski

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Jason Kendall appears to be retiring for good, which makes it eulogy time. My personal recollection of Kendall from his time in Oakland is of a guy who suddenly forgot how to throw, who had the kind of power that caused pitchers to giggle happily as they motioned their outfielders “in, in, in,” who grounded into altogether too many double plays, … and who was, at the end of the year, an above-average player because he kept his backup off the field and got on base a reasonable number of times for his position and park. There is much more to be said, though, because Kendall didn’t reach the A’s until 30 years after his birth (on which more later), his best seasons having already passed.

***

Let’s ignore for the moment the question of whether Kendall will make his way into the Hall of Fame come 2020 or so. He might be good enough to get there on the objective merits, having racked up as much career value with his bat and legs and durability as almost any of his contemporaries at his position:

Player VORP
Mike Piazza 698.6
Ivan Rodriguez 602
Jason Kendall 466.2
Jorge Posada 459.6
Javy Lopez 350.7

One squints and twists one’s neck into awkward positions while examining catcher defensive metrics, but it’s worth noting that Kendall’s defensive reputation is much stronger than that of the two men behind him in the above list. Of course, that doesn’t really help him move up the table because Pudge_2 had a lethal cannon and Piazza is probably too far out in front on the strength of his bat to be caught, even as we are learning that the spread of runs saved by catcher gloves (particularly in pitch-framing, but also in ball-blocking) is larger than we might have imagined. On the other hand, Mike Piazza’s noodle arm may have led us to underestimate his overall defensive skill and Jason Kendall, despite being super-gritty, may not actually have been that good at the whole defense thing.

But feh, this is why I didn’t want to get into a discussion of Kendall’s actual candidacy. There are a lot of unknowns and open questions and philosophical difficulties to untangle, and I’m not really in the mood to care about that. I’m on vacation, actually. I just want to think about happy things.

Here are some happy things:

  • Kendall never spent a day in Triple-A. He jumped from Double-A to the majors in 1996, didn’t do any rehab assignments in Triple-A, and was even playing in the Texas League in his aborted comeback attempt this year.
  • Kendall finished 126th since 1950 in VORP, with the hitters below and above him being Brooks Robinson (FRAA is not part of VORP) and Albert Belle. That’s the proverbial good company!
  • Kendall ended up as the best baserunning catcher in our database, compiling 26.4 runs above average on the bases. He is 140th overall, a remarkably high number for a man who spent as much time as he did in a squat, getting dinged with foul balls, plastered by onrushing hordes of baserunners desperate to score, and, oh yeah, suffering one of the most gruesome ankle injuries most of us have ever seen. Some quick math: if you figure six minutes of squatting per inning played, Kendall spent 104,870 minutes squatting in the big leagues, or 1,748 hours, or 73 days. This is all before you consider bullpen, warmups between innings, spring training, the minors, and so on. Kendall squatted a lot.
  • Here’s a measure I find to be an interesting way to illustrate how long Kendall played an immensely difficult defensive position: among hitters, only Ivan Rodriguez has a higher career positional adjustment since 1950 than Jason Kendall.
  • Last one: he looks like Colin Farrell as Bullseye: 

 

***

That wasn’t really the last one, but this needs more than a bullet point. It requires some windup. It is the happiest thing I can think of. I’m put in mind of this because my wife recently told me that her grandfather was fond of pointing out where his daughter (my wife’s mother) was conceived. What can be happier than conception? The first thing to know about Jason Kendall’s conception is that his father, Fred, was a major-league catcher. Fred wasn’t as good as his son would turn out to be, mostly posting VORP figures that are displayed in red on his player card. (Because they’re negative, see.) He even had two seasons in which he was more than a win below replacement with his bat and legs, despite being a catcher and thus getting the most generous positional adjustment there is.

But old Fred, he had one good season. In 1973, Kendall pere had his personal bests in plate appearances, runs, hits, doubles, homers, total bases, sacrifice flies and bunts, RBI, steals, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, True Average, VORP, and WARP. He was, if Wikipedia is to be believed, named the Most Valuable Padre. He did all this at 24, so you can just see it, can’t you? He’s had a good season, albeit for a bad team, he’s respected by his teammates, his whole future is ahead of him. The Padres play in Pittsburgh on October 1st, their last game of the year. Kendall notches a single. He heads home to his wife in San Diego. They have a candle-lit dinner to celebrate the fact that he finally has some time off, some time to spend with her.

And wouldn’t you know it, 38 weeks later, out pops little Jason Kendall, future big-league catcher. No, really. Check Kendall’s birthday: June 26, 1974. Go to an Internet date calculator. Punch in “subtract 38 weeks.” Result: October 3, 1973. It’s sweet! It’s romantic!

One cannot, or at least should not, deny the power of such mystical forces. Clearly Jason Kendall was destined for big things.

 

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

Related Content:  Jason Kendall,  Jason Kendall's Dad

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