Jason Kendall: Simply (Not) the Best

I got involved in a discussion the other day on Twitter (@michaelengel) about Jason Kendall‘s defensive prowess. Based on his recent 1-25 stretch (now improved to 4-39!), the question came up asking why the Royals insisted on playing him so much.After into tonight’s game, Kendall leads the majors in innings caught with 560.  Second on the list is Yadier Molina with 516 innings caught.

I got a response from a follower stating that Kendall played because “he’s among the best defensive catchers in the game.” I couldn’t tell if that was sarcasm or not. It wasn’t.

Of course, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and I’m not even going to say that Kendall isn’t a fully capable defensive catcher. He is. But among the best? That I find hard to swallow.

At best, Kendall is average when you consider all the aspects of a catcher’s defensive (i.e. run-preventing) responsibilities.  Going into tonight’s game, Kendall was last of 18 qualifying catchers in fielding percentage.  (To qualify, a player must have caught more than half of their team’s games.  But fine, there’s more than just fielding percentage.  And of Kendall’s league leading 8 errors, 7 of them are throwing errors, so that’s not so much a reflection of his skill at fielding the ball.

But it does indicate that he’s either reacting late (and rushing throws) or his throwing abilities aren’t very strong.  Considering he’s had runners attempt a stolen base against him 75 times in 2010, and he’s only thrown out 24% of them, the league is clearly onto him.  I hate to use anecdotal evidence, but I’d say I’ve seen at least a dozen throws down to second that skipped five feet in front of the base, making it impossible for the fielder to make a tag.  I heard Ryan Lefebvre say he was trying to keep the ball low to the ground for a more direct path, and hey, I’ll give them both the benefit of the doubt, but after about the seventh throw that skipped, maybe Kendall could have tried a different arc.

Generally, if you don’t have a 70% chance of being successful of stealing a base, it’s bad strategy to attempt the steal.  With 76% of runners reaching safely on their steal attempts, other teams are making it their business to test Kendall’s (almost) 36-year-old arm.  And business is booming.

In 2009, Kendall threw out 16 runners in 80 steal attempts, a success rate of 20%, so maybe I shouldn’t be complaining.  But he’s also nearly matched that net total of attempts against in half as many games in 2010.  The 57 steals against leads the league.  Kendall has surrendered more steals than such catching luminaries as Victor Martinez (52/64), Ryan Doumit (50/5), and Bengie Molina (40/50).  At least, in Kendall’s case, he has more caught stealing.

The one category that I can’t bash Kendall on is the one that led to Kansas City’s pursuit of him in the first place.  After a dismal year from John Buck and Miguel Olivo that saw them chasing wild pitches to the backstop like they were doing shuttle runs, something needed to be done to prevent that.  Since the start of 2008, Kendall has been charged with only 10 passed balls in  346 games.  Must admit, that’s pretty good.  Although he probably gives up more bases by virtue of other teams running on him than Olivo would on wild pitches and passed balls.  By the way, Olivo has thrown out 17 of 32 baserunners.  And he’s also carrying an OPS of .888.  And making $250,000 less than Kendall.

Olivo’s also walking in 9.6% of his appearances thus far, more than twice his career rate of 4.1%.  That’s just mean.

With no other alternatives immediately ready (I like Brayan Pena as much as anyone else, but there’s a reason he’s never gotten much time behind the plate – he’s just not that good), Kendall isn’t going anywhere.  And my point isn’t even that he should go anywhere now that he’s on the team.  Batting ninth and putting up his .266/.329/.319 line isn’t THAT bad. (Okay it’s still not very good)

But Kendall, according to the evidence, isn’t “among the best defensive catchers in the game.”  Heck, it’s a stretch to say he’s average.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Brayan Pena Jason Kendall John Buck Kansas City Royals KC Miguel Olivo MLB Royals

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