Howie Kendrick is not the model of league-average consistency he seems like at first blush. Kendrick is basically washed up. Last year he posted numbers that would appear consistent with his performance since 2011: BB% in the mid 5’s, K% in the mid-to-high teens, BABIP over .340, ISO hanging in at .114, and 2.1 WAR. The plate-discipline numbers look stable, but the ISO and BABIP don’t.
The ISO was propped up by a 14.1% HR/FB that he is not going to repeat. Last year he managed only a .114 ISO despite an elite FB distance of 305 feet, which was 14th-best in the majors. His FB rate was the main culprit. It has steadily declined since he arrived in the majors in 2007, bottoming out last year at 17%. And he’s not going to have elite FB distance in 2016, and is unlikely to be anywhere close to his 2015 number. He began his career in the low to mid 270s, peaked at 285 at age 28, and had been steadily receding back to the 270s until last year’s unlikely spike at age 32. In all likelihood the 2015 number was driven by good fortune in a very small sample of fly balls. Expect that number to be back in the low to mid 270s in his age-33 season. If he hits the same number of fly balls in 2016 as he did in 2015, but his HR/FB% is cut roughly in half, he will hit 4-5 home runs. Moreover, his 2015 hard-hit rate (29%) was in the bottom half for the first time in years, and his pull rate (27%) was a career low and good for third-lowest in the majors for all batters with at least 400 PA. All of this points to an ISO below .100.
His BABIP won’t crater. He doesn’t pop up and keeps the ball on the ground. But his BABIP isn’t going to stay over .340 forever, and I would take the under in 2016. Last year’s homers will be this year’s fly ball outs. Overall, he’s not hitting the ball as hard. Nor is he getting any faster. And, because he can no longer pull the ball — particularly balls hit in the air — he should be getting easier to shift against. Steamer’s projection of .324 seems about right.
Altogether, he’s looking at a .290-ish wOBA, bottom of the pile for regular second basemen. Add in his projected league-average baserunning and defense, and he’s worth about 1 WAR. Steamer has him at 2 WAR (based on a projected .316 wOBA); Zips projects 1.9 WAR (.317 wOBA); and the fans project 2.7 WAR (.322 wOBA). These figures are double to triple what he is likely to produce. Note, however, that the Dodgers are paying Kendrick $20 million for 2016 and 2017. Assuming $8 million per WAR, the Dodgers are valuing him at only 1.25 WAR per season. To no one’s surprise, it seems Friedman and company have this one right. Also, Kendrick does have a career wOBA platoon split of .325 vs. righties and .340 vs. lefties. One way to squeeze additional value from Kendrick (and keep him healthy) at this stage of his career might be a semi-platoon with Utley, who himself sports a career platoon split and projects better against righties than Kendrick.
Robinson Cano’s power vanished in 2014 without a clear explanation. Most believe that he will be valuable even if the power does not return. I think Cano’s risk going forward is greater than meets the eye.
After sporting an ISO of at least .199 every year from 2009 to 2013, Cano posted a mark of .139 in 2014. There is reason to believe that this power outage is permanent. Robinson Cano was a different kind of hitter in 2014. His ground ball percentage was 53% (up from 44% in 2013), and his average HR/FB distance plummeted from 292 to 278. Cano was mostly incapable of hitting fly balls to his pull side, which is where his home-run power used to be, despite swinging at more pitches middle-in. Cano’s aging bat may be unable to turn on major-league pitching the way it used to. As noted elsewhere, Cano’s 2014 power numbers had little to do with the move from Yankee Stadium to Safeco. His problem was that he hit the ball in the air less frequently, with less authority, and to the wrong side of the ballpark.
Aging may have played a role, but it is unusual for an elite slugger’s power to disappear at age 31 without something else going on. Perhaps Cano was dealing with an injury. Perhaps his amazing run from 2009-2013 was fueled by PEDs. We don’t know. But consider the similarities between Cano’s pre-elite 2008 line and his line from last year:
It’s easy to forget that Cano was a replacement level second baseman in 2008. BABIP (along with the changing run environment) is mostly what separates his 2008 replacement level performance from the five-win version of Cano we saw in 2014. The stability of last year’s BABIP may be the key to Cano’s value going forward—a terrifying thought for the Mariners, who presumably did not intend to invest $240 million in the vagaries of BABIP.
There is conflicting data on what to expect from Cano’s balls in play in 2015. For example, ZIPS predicts .323—not so bad. Jeff Zimmerman’s xBABIP formula predicts .299—much closer to the 2008 disaster scenario. Neither of these predictions fully accounts for shifts, and Cano’s performance against them in 2014 is concerning. His BABIP was .388 against the shift and .303 without it. This is disconcerting because Cano displayed no such shift-beating prowess before last year, and his 2014 spray chart suggests no change in his approach that would justify any BABIP spike. To the contrary, last year Cano hit an alarming number of grounders to the right side of the infield, which should have favored the shifted infield defenses. It appears that Cano got lucky—perhaps very lucky—with his 2014 balls in play. My money is on something closer to the xBABIP prediction for 2015.
Cano went from an elite slugger to a BABIP-fueled slap hitter in a short period of time. His 2014 output was akin to an early-career Ichiro, except unlike Ichiro, we lack assurances that Cano will maintain the high BABIP. If the power is truly gone and the BABIP craters, he’s toast—or at least something closer to league average. The risk of collapse is higher than most want to believe, if for no other reason than this same risk was once realized by the same player.