For a second baseman who has not failed to reach base in less than a third of his plate appearances each of the past three years, Howie Kendrick sure is having a hard time finding a team to play for in 2016. Prior to the Washington Nationals’ decision to pass on Brandon Phillips and whatever demand he made in return for waiving his no-trade rights, there had been very little concrete chatter surrounding the 32-year-old Kendrick. If the 2011 All-Star does ultimately sign with Washington, he will have been their third option, behind Ben Zobrist and Phillips.
Why the heck doesn’t anyone else want a career .293 hitter who has found a way on base in exactly one third of his career trips to the plate? A second baseman with a career OPS+ of 108 should, in no free-agent market, have a hard time finding a new home. There are no drawbacks to Howie Kendrick as a player, and he has proven year after year to be a solid presence in the lineup and clubhouse.
The narrative with Phillips will show that he provides premium power at second base. That’s no longer the case. The 34-year-old has not recorded an OPS+ over 100 since 2011. Phillips has not even gotten his slugging percentage over .400 in three years. In four of the past five years, Kendrick, perceived as a contact hitter, has turned in a higher slugging percentage than Phillips. Because OPS+ is able to tease out the effects of playing in a hitter-friendly park, the gap between Phillips and Kendrick is even more pronounced, with Phillips at 96, and Kendrick at 108. OPS+ is a nice tool, but it’s not even needed to compare Kendrick and Phillips. Playing in pitcher-friendly parks in Los Angeles, Kendrick has Phillips beat in raw, old-fashioned slugging, .423 to .421.
The four-year, $56 million deal for Zobrist will complicate things for Kendrick. Offensively, Zobrist does have Kendrick beat. Zobrist is better when it comes to reaching base thanks to his keen eye at the plate, and also slugs a bit higher. Defensively, however, Zobrist, 35 in May, is in decline. He was a negative in Defensive Runs Saved across the board last season, and has been worth -1.3 dWAR over the past two years. At this point, Zobrist’s ability to play more than one position is severely overvalued. He is a below-average defensive second baseman for the Chicago Cubs. Kendrick was also a negative on defense last year, but did have 1.4 dWAR in 2014. These statistics are not the perfect way to evaluate a player’s value defensively, because the team’s overall needs should still be accounted for.
Howie Kendrick has a career .986 fielding percentage at second base, and Ben Zobrist checks in at .987. Neither will blow you away with spectacular defense, but when the ball is hit to them, they typically field it and throw it to the right base. That’s all a team like the Nationals needs from its second baseman, thanks to their excellent pitching staff.
Zobrist and Kendrick will be nearly perfect comparisons for each other as the aging curve continues to catch up with the new Cub. His contract should be favorable to Howie Kendrick as contract talks continue, but in reality, it could become a sticking point. Part of the reason Zobrist earns $14 million per year is his perceived ability to play multiple positions. That ability is severely overvalued at this point. A full-time second baseman without the ability to hit 20-plus home runs will have a hard time finding a team willing to pay market value. Kendrick is close to being a 3.0-WAR player per year over his ten-year career. That should easily make him worth $14 million per year, but Kendrick does not field like an Old School second baseman, or hit for power like a New Age second baseman. Most teams are still reluctant to spend big at second base unless the player brings elite, elite offense.
Howie Kendrick could very easily make a case for a carbon copy of Zobrist’s $56-million deal, but he probably will not get it. Something along the lines of three years for $36 million seems possible. His offensive skills are still undervalued, and the wave of big spending has not caught up to the second base position. Whichever team ends up signing Howie Kendrick will no doubt find themselves with a steal.