Throughout his career, Howie Kendrick has shouldered others’ expectations that he’d win a batting title. And for every positive step he has taken towards this accomplishment, there is a negative attached to it. For example, though he has a .295 career average, he has never finished in the top 10 in batting, and his only All-Star appearance came in 2011, when he went on to hit .263 in the second half (compared to .302 in the first). His wRC+ has been at least 100 in five of the last six seasons, and he is one of 14 players with 150 hits in each of the last four seasons. But his wRC+ has surpassed 110 only once in a full season, and he is also one of only four players with at least 90 strikeouts and fewer than 35 walks in each of the last three seasons. But now, in his age-29 season, he’s fourth in the AL with a .328 batting average, on pace for 40 walks (the 90 K/40 BB list is graced with respectable names such as Kemp and CarGo) and career highs in AVG/OBP/SLG and homers. So what are the chances that he will keep up this pace? He may deal with some regression, but his first top-ten finish in batting average is well within the realm of possibility.
The first thing to notice is that Kendrick’s line drive rate, which has been almost supernaturally consistent since 2008 (always between 18.7% and 21.9%), has leapt up to 30%, and his 2012 groundball % spike has been revealed to be an aberration. Kendrick’s BABIP is an elevated .386, but his career BABIP is .344 and goes with a 20% career line drive rate, so coupling a .386 BABIP with a 30% line drive rate is not absurd; it simply means that a lot rides on Kendrick’s ability to sustain a line drive rate close to 30%.
There is reason to believe that he can keep his line drive rate up. While his average against breaking balls is a concern, Kendrick’s improvement this year has been well-rounded. Against every pitch, either his average, his slugging percentage, or both are better this year than last year. In fact, Kendrick’s batting average against fastballs is second in the major leagues right now.
The next place to look for hitting growth is in his plate discipline, and Kendrick’s numbers are a little surprising here. Granted, an increased BB% by 1 percentage point is not much, but given that his chase rate and in-the-zone swing rates have both increased substantially and his contact rate has held fairly steady, one would expect a decrease in BB% and an increase in K%, not the opposite. Kendrick’s OBP (more than 40 points above his average for just the second time in his career) and BB% are two statistics especially vulnerable to regression.
Lastly, let’s examine Kendrick’s power. He’s narrowly on pace to set a career high in homers (on pace for 18.5, while his career high is 18), but easily on pace to exceed 10 homers, which he has done only once before.
Kendrick’s underlying power statistics are somewhat unhelpful because he has been capable of sustaining very high and very low HR/FB rates. His career average is 9.4%, but only once in the last five years has he put up a season mark within 2.5 points of that. In 2011, he had a higher ISO (more power) and a lower HR/FB rate than this year, suggesting that a lucky HR/FB% is responsible for his success this year. Furthermore, in 2011, Kendrick hit non-HR extra-base hits in 6.17% of his plate appearances, and this year he has done that in 4.84% of PA, a decrease of more than 20%. He does appear to have much less genuine power this year than in 2011, and some of his homers will begin to go for outs or doubles. Still, this shouldn’t affect his batting average much. If Kendrick’s fly ball rate remains the same for the rest of the year, and his HR/FB% reverts to his career average 9.4%, he’ll hit six more homers this year, only four fewer than the ten he’d hit if neither his fly ball rate nor his HR/FB% changed, and even if all four of those non-homers fall for outs, that will cost him only four hits. In descending order of likelihood, it is most likely that Kendrick will have his first top-ten AL batting finish, second-most likely that he’ll get out of the ugly 90+ K/fewer than 35 BB club, and least likely that he’ll top his season-best 18 homeruns.