Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Decline and Fall of Jason Kendall

What started as an offhand remark about a fan's shirt on Monday nights game has become a bit of a controversy between myself and Rory and now has taken on a life as what can only be termed "Pat and Rory's Fact or Fiction, Round 1," which is good, we can't agree on everything or you'd have no point in reading both of our blogs. He already has a good post up over at his site about Kendall's merits, mostly involved with handling the pitching staff. I don't necessarily agree (which is how disagreement start of course) and will try to clarify my statement that we don't really miss Kendall at all in the 'Burgh, one of the reasons being the handling of the pitching staff. But that's not where I'm going to start, because I also feel like there are other issues with Kendall that I need (or at least want to) address. This is going to be long and full of bolded headings, used mostly to keep myself on track. Brace yourself because this is one giant post...

The Beginning
Kendall was the face of the franchise here in Pittsburgh from 1996 when he was robbed of a Rookie of the Year award by Todd Hollandsworth through the end of last year, when he really seemed to have turned over a new leaf without the negative influence of Giles in the clubhouse. He was worshipped here, more so than any player in the Gene Lamont-Lloyd McClendon era. To start things off with, I loved Jason Kendall. When I would read bad things about him in the papers (he's not a team player, he wants to leave Pittsburgh, he's a tyrant in the clubhouse, he can't drive in runs, etc. etc.) I would flip. If I had a blog back in those days, I would've been making posts like this in Kendall's defense. He was blue collar, he was a catcher (the same position I had played growing up), he wore Andy Van Slyke's number, he was perfect, he was my hero. I was so upset we traded him for two 30+ lefthanded pitchers I wasn't sure I would ever want to go to a Pirates game again. Now, 9 days into June, I feel like I've had the wool pulled out from in front of me and I can finally see. Looking back, Kendall's career peaked on July 3, 1999. After his ankle injury it was all downhill from there. And here's why I think that.

His Bat
Since Kendall was always known for his bat, I'll start there. In 1998 Kendall slugged .473. He hit 12 homers and drove in 75 runs. He had 36 doubles and 3 triples that year. He got off to an even better start in 1999 before he busted his ankle (.511 SLG, 8 HRs and 41 RBIs in 78 games on July 4th). Last year Kendall hit .319, but he only slugged .390. He only had a total of 35 extra base hits, with only three homers and no triples at all. His 51 RBIs were low, even out of leadoff spot. I'm not saying singles are bad, but even Ichiro slugged .455 last year. Kendall had changed and no one noticed it. The batting average was back up for the second year in a row last year and that was all people seemed to care about. Gone was the Jason Kendall of the late 90s, the guy that could hit the ball into any gap, could hit a home run when necessary, and could still keep his average up around .330. So what happened? Not the ankle injury (though I'm using it as a watermark), that only accounts for halving his stolen bases. Nope, it was an injury that few people remember, the thumb injury. In his comeback year from the ankle injury he still slugged .470 and drove in and hit .320. In 2001, when he hurt his thumb catching so badly he played 28 adventurous games in the outfield, his numbers took a dive. The batting average came back, but nothing else did. Kendall had adapted his swing to hit more singles and hit for a higher average, putting up a wall that fooled people into thinking he was back to pre-thumb injury form (me included). Each year people would wonder when he was going to hit a home run so for a couple weeks he'd lengthen the swing, go for power, strike out a ton, and hit a few homers. He simply was never the same again in the batters box.

His Defense
It was below average. That's all there is to it. He never had a great arm, though he was always "working on it". He probably should've pulled a Biggio after his ankle injury and moved to second or third, but he never did. That in turn probably kept that thumb injury from healing properly, sabotaging his swing.

His Game Management
This is where the debate was sparked with Rory. I never really felt he was up to snuff handling a pitching staff. The catcher's importance in handling the staff is huge, it's called a "battery" for a reason. I never felt like he was on the same page as the pitchers all the time. I used the example of the year Joe Oliver came as evidence. I didn't mean we should've kept Oliver, or that the Guillen for Cota and Oliver trade was a good one. I simply meant that I felt that the pitchers pitched a little better when he caught. When I mentioned this in the comments section of that post from a couple days ago, Rory scoffed and I reevaluated, thinking that it did seem pretty ludicrous. So I looked it up. After a painstaking analysis (again, using retrosheet.org), I came up with this: the 1999 Pittsburgh Pirates had an ERA of 3.97 in the 40 games that Joe Oliver started. The team's ERA for the year was 4.33. It might not seem like a lot, and it may be a small sample, but consider that Oliver was catching a young pitching staff late in the year, when the usually falter. If you average Oliver's third of a run per game out over the whole year, it comes up to about 54 runs over the whole year. Using Baseball-Reference's Pythagorean W/L formula that's about five wins over the course of the year. I'm not trying to say anything earthshaking, just that a catcher as unassuming as Joe Oliver seemed to have made a difference in the pitching staff (maybe it's coincidence, maybe it's sample size, but I remember having conversations with other people about this in 1999 and they seemed to agree). For me, the proof of his lack of abilities as a catcher was always in the pitching prospects we had that never panned out. Schmidt had some good years for us, but he was never as good as he should have been. Same goes for Benson (though now that he's in New York we'll be able to see if the problem was something Kendall or the Pirates did or if it was simply Anna Benson). I would even say the same thing about Kip Wells. He had some solid years, but he was never quite as good as he should've been. Since his 0-3 start he's been better than ever this year. It's too early to tell if this is attributed to Kendall being gone, this being his walk year, an anomaly, or something else unrelated. So the question is, what happened. Since Rory has the team ERA stats in his post I won't post them here (in the interest of length), but the team ERA and league rank took a dive in 2000 and stayed down. A couple things happened around the same time. Lamont and staff (Vuckovich as pitching coach) were canned. Lloyd took over, made the bullpen coach (Spin) his pitching coach and made Bruce Tanner bullpen coach. I don't like Spin a whole ton, but seeing as how team's weren't knocking down Vuckovich's door to hire him as a pitching coach, I'm guessing he wasn't a whole lot better. We also moved into PNC park. Critics call it a bandbox, but anyone that's been there knows it's really just about right. It's not too small, nor is it too big. In fact, looking at Baseball-Reference's Park Factor, PNC is a slightly better pitcher's park than Three Rivers was. The pitching numbers in the four full years at PNC are 100, 105, 99, 96 (where over 100 favors batters), whereas the last four years in Three Rivers were 102, 102, 100, 99. Something certainly happend. While I will admit that Kendall seemed to be doing a good job with the pitchers pre-1999, there was a difference with Oliver catching and we had a ton of pitchers in that stretch never reach the potential we thought they should (Loaiza, Cordova, Lieber, to name a few of the less notables). I can't even think of any pitcher that has reached their full potential with Kendall catching. Sure, some of them weren't that good, some were probably miscoached, most of the teams they pitched for sucked, and that is one huge sweeping generalization, but Kendall is certainly one constant in the equation. After 2000 is a different story. It seems to me that Kendall worked so hard rehabbing the ankle and the his thumb and then learning how to hit enough singles to hit .315 every year that he neglected a part of his game that was already on the weak side, his ability to call and manage a game. It may be too early to tell this year, but the Pirates pitching is looking much better than expected and the A's pitching is looking like a major letdown. That's something to keep our eyes on.

His Attitude
Despite the disappearence of his bat and his drop off in catching skills, this was probably his biggest problem in his final years. Early in his career he was very similar to Jack Wilson. He was full of energy (remember the leap over the catcher to score a run?), he was always talking to someone. He talked about his only goal being to wear black and gold forever like Stargell and Clemente, and he talked about how much it would mean to him to lead the Pirates to the playoffs and beyond. In his last couple years here he stopped talking so much, stopped the over-exuberant play on the field, and mostly said things like "I don't lead by anything but example. I don't do all that rah-rah stuff." That's all well and good, but a catcher is the field general. He has to lead by more than example. In fact, it was reported that he and Giles would often ride Jack Wilson for caring too much and for showing too much emotion. I didn't believe it, but Jack Wilson's talk about the team in January changed my mind (emphasis added by me):

If you look at our division, a lot of the teams got weaker and we're actually one of the teams that got stronger. I'm really pumped up to get started.If I was a Pittsburgh fan I would be really excited right now because the young players that we have are really good.
He didn't even mention Kendall until prompted in a later question.. We had just lost the equivalent of our franchise player and Jack is talking about how we're better? When I thought back on the supposed problems between Jack and Kendall and Giles it all made sense. Several other players made similarly positive remarks about "the players we have right now" and how they were looking forward to the season. It was nothing direct, but to me at least, it all seemed to be point towards the players on the team being happy that Jason Kendall was gone. Add that in to Kendall's comments about "needing to part ways" with Pittsburgh (completely opposite from what he preached in public for his entire career) and it seems like Kendall's transition from a team first guy into a "what team, all Pittsburgh even has is me now that Giles is gone" kind of guy was complete by last year.

The End
OK, conlcusion time. The simplest proof is in the pudding. We're 28-30, the A's are 23-35. We don't miss Kendall's lack of defense behind the plate. We don't miss his bat because quite simply, there really hasn't been a lot to miss since 2001. We didn't miss his game calling abilities when he went down in 1999 and we certainly don't seem to miss them now. He hasn't talked to one single Pirate player since he left, we don't miss him in the clubhouse. He's said some pretty bad things about the Pirates. As soon as he left, the "I love Pittsburgh" facade came down. He never once mentioned regret for leaving the team before taking them to the playoffs (which was supposedly always his goal when he was here). He never seemed to regret the loss of the chance to be like Stargell or Clemente. He (as was on par with his last four years here) didn't really say much of anything to anyone. Now that he's gone it's pretty clear that nothing about him is missed. The thing is, it's not because we replaced him with anyone that great, it's because looking back on his career since 2001, he was appallingly average. Instead of missing him, we feel betrayed by his departure, and betrayed that we thought he was so good for so long. Neither me nor anyone will ever name a blog "Where have you gone, Jason Kendall".

UPDATE: If you really haven't had enough to this point, the debate continues into the comments section where Rory has some good points, and I (hopefully) make myself a little more clear.