A deeper look at Howie Kendrick, Dee Gordon’s replacement

When the Dodgers acquired Howie Kendrick for Andrew Heaney, my first thought was, “that seems like too much.” It still might be, but Kendrick is an undeniable upgrade at the second base position.

The Dodgers came extremely close to landing Kendrick at the trade deadline in 2013. Zach Lee and Chris Withrow would have gone to the Angels for Kendrick. That was before Alex Guerrero signed. That was before Dee Gordon broke out. Kendrick has been on the Dodgers’ radar for awhile, and despite lacking the high on-base percentage Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi and Co., desire, he’s a great defender at second base.

Say what you will about defensive metrics (they aren’t perfect by any means), but there aren’t other statistical ways to evaluate a player … yet. And Kendrick passes the eye test. In his career, he has 28 defensive runs saved and a 5.6 UZR/150 in 8,413 innings at the position. He’s saved the ninth-most runs and his UZR/150 ranks as fifth-best in the majors since 2006, behind some premium defenders at second base. It’s easy to see why Andrew Friedman liked him, after having Ben Zobrist work his magic in Tampa Bay for so many years. In 2014, Kendrick was fifth in DRS (seven) and seventh in UZR/150 (6.7). By comparison, Dee Gordon checked in at 14th (-5) and 12th in UZR/150 (-3.5). Yes, Gordon has better range and a stronger arm than Kendrick, but he isn’t as consistently good a defender as him at the position.

Offensively, Kendrick, 31, is a huge upgrade over Gordon. The only thing Gordon does better than Kendrick is run. Last season was Kenrdick’s second-best offensive season by FanGraphs’ “Off” statistic, and his triple slash was solid, save the sub-.400 slugging percentage. Now, Kendrick isn’t the right-handed power the Dodgers allegedly lack, but he possesses a plus-hit tool and posted a career-best 7.1 percent walk rate last season. Let’s delve into that a bit further.

Kendrick had an O-Swing% (percentage of pitches swung at outside the strike zone) of 41.2 percent in 2013. He reduced that number to 35.0 percent in 2014. He also got more patient at the plate by swinging at fewer pitches (54.1 percent swing percentage in 2013 down to 49.0 in 2014). He also swung and missed at fewer pitches (10.3 percent to 9.0 percent). Kendrick’s improved plate discipline may or may not be permanent, but it’s certainly better than it trending in the opposite direction. And after witnessing Gordon walk just four times after the All-Star break, any plate discipline from his replacement is most welcome.

Here’s Kendrick’s heat map from 2012-14.

That’s some strike zone coverage. There aren’t a lot of places in the zone where he can’t at least get the bat on the ball.

His platoon splits are pretty even throughout the course of his career, with just a slight advantage against left-handed pitching (.298/.339/.453 vs. LHP, .290/.329/.412 vs. RHP). His home-road OPS marks are separated by just a point. If nothing else, Kendrick is a consistent hitter who provides above-average offense and double-digit stolen base potential.

Yes, the Dodgers are going to miss Gordon’s speed — any team would miss 64 stolen bases. But the overall upgrade cannot be questioned (no matter what a certain Southern California radio personality might say).

Kendrick is signed through the 2015 season at $9.5 million — a bargain, really. It’s a little disappointing he isn’t signed for longer, but since the Dodgers traded for him in the offseason, they’re allowed to extend a qualifying offer to him next offseason (if he performs well enough, of course). They could also extend his contract by a couple years, if they so choose. With no one really set to take over the position after this season, that’s a distinct possibility. Darwin Barney is a premium defender, but he can’t hit and is better suited for backup detail. Alex Guerrero isn’t a second baseman and Darnell Sweeney is questionable defensively in his own right. It’s entirely possible Kendrick could be the Dodgers’ second baseman for the next few years.

The only part I don’t much care for with this deal is the fact the Dodgers had to give up Heaney to get Kenrick. I thought Heaney would be used to get a bigger piece. If not, I thought he would have held a little more trade value. It doesn’t make me hate the deal, I expected a touch more with Heaney going the opposite direction.

I’m going to miss Gordon. It was nice to see him break through and I hope he can continue to be a solid player. But I was highly suspect of him being able to repeat his 2014 performance — not even his first-half performance. The Dodgers, rightly, sold high on him and upgraded on both sides of the ball at the position.

About Dustin Nosler

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Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosted a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He was a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times and True Blue LA. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.