Monday, November 15, 2004

Jason Kendall Redux

The NL MVP voting was released today, and the outcome at the top should surprise no one. A few things that I noticed, however, were further down the ballot.

For one, pitchers received very little support. This is perhaps rightfully so, but Randy Johnson and Ben Sheets would have been in my top ten. Why Roger Clemens and Eric Gagne received more votes than either Johnson or Sheets is no mystery, but in my book it certainly is faulty logic.

Furthermore, the two best players in Pennsylvania this season both received only marginal consideration, if any. Bobby Abreu, who, had he played in the AL this season, probably would have been second on my hypothetical MVP ballot behind Johan Santana, received only two votes, one for ninth place and one for tenth place. There were a lot of deserving candidates this year, and Abreu probably would have only been sixth or seventh on my ballot, but his lack of consideration is disappointing.

The other Pennsylvanian? Jason Kendall, who I named the best catcher in the NL this season. I would argue that in most seasons the top catcher in a league is probably among the ten most valuable players in the league. In 2004 in the NL, I don’t think that was the case, but you’d think at least the home-town papers would give him token ninth place votes. Alas, that was not the case as Kendall, like his fellow undervalued Pirates Oliver Perez and Jack Wilson, received no votes. Actually, only Johnny Estrada was the only NL catcher receiving any votes, a seventh place vote and two ninth place votes. Estrada had a much nicer story line—he was another epitome of Bobby Cox/John Schuerholz’ genius, a virtual unknown traded for a star who outperformed the star by leaps and bounds who started out the season strongly, while Kendall was represented in the media as an overpriced aging star unwanted by his penny-pinching non-contender team. However, Kendall’s season was, in my view, the superior one. Their offensive production was roughly equal, as Kendall’s .319/.399/.390 was good for a .280 EqA and Estrada’s .314/.378/.450 was good for a .286 EqA. However, Kendall played significantly more, logging 141.8 adjusted games at catcher versus 117.1 for Estrada. Furthermore, Kendall had an excellent season defensively while Estrada had a defensive season that equaled Kendall’s worst season as a major league catcher.

And yet Kendall is lumped into the group of “bad contract” players (Peter Gammons’ recent column is a good example). How bad is his contract? I’ll return to net win shares value here. According to the Hardball Times 2004 Baseball Annual, Kendall’s $8.57m contract was worth $4.8m, 87th best in major league baseball out of 763 contracts, putting him in the 88th percentile of value. Not too bad, huh? Kendall’s deal is worth 10, 11, and 13 million dollars in 2005, 2006, and 2007, respectively, which is indeed an awful lot of money to invest in a catcher on the wise side of thirty. But let’s contextualize that. For the deal to “break even” in net win shares value, Kendall would need to contribute about 25 win shares above replacement over the next three years.

I don’t have access to full win share data over his career, and the data I do have access to was calculated using slightly different formulas, so let’s just look at Kendall’s 2004. In 2004, Kendall produced 24.8 Win Shares, compared to his average baseline of 18 and his replacement baseline of about 13.5. His win shares were distributed as 18 batting and 6.8 fielding. Part of that came from his versatility; Kendall started 145 games and finished almost all of them, logging 1259 innings, while Jorge Posada was second in baseball in games started at catcher with 126 and Brian Schneider was second in innings with 1114. Over the course of Kendall’s career, that versatility has been a trend, as his AdjG has totaled 135 or more in all but two seasons since his rookie year. By comparison, Ivan Rodriguez’ career high in AdjG is 137.6, and he only was in the 130’s for a four-year stretch. Mike Piazza only broke the 130’s four times, as well. Kendall’s versatility is thus rare. It could be argued that this makes Kendall a high risk for fatigue, injury, and decline, but I’m not convinced of that. For one, Kendall’s splits both in 2004 and from 2002-2004 show a remarkable month to month consistency, and he’s actually peaked in September. For another thing, Kendall has no significant injury history aside from his infamous 2-year thumb injury; a Lexis-Nexis search didn’t reveal the cause of his thumb injury, but I’m willing to speculate that, it being a thumb injury, it wasn’t the result of stress put on his body by catching. So overall I’d say that there’s a very strong chance that Kendall can be counted on to catch 130 games over each of the next three seasons. Furthermore, the dearth of catching talent under the age of 30 available in baseball at this time leads me to believe that Kendall, who only turned 30 last June, is as good a bet as anyone to remain healthy and durable at the catcher position.

Defensively, Kendall has been all over the map in his career. Based on the rate stats at Baseball Prospectus, Kendall was a poor fielder as a rookie in 1996, a very good fielder in 1997 and 2004, an average fielder in 1998 and 2000, a subpar fielder from 2001 to 2003, and a brilliant fielder in limited playing time in 1999. His career mean Rate2 is 100, exactly average. Some would argue that his true defensive performance level going forward is probably along the lines of his 2001-2003 performance, and I think that might be fair. If he returns to that level, we could expect a performance roughly equal to Johnny Estrada’s this season. According to the eminently useful THT Annual, Estrada was good for 2.94 win shares per 1000 innings this season. If we prorate that over a somewhat conservative estimate of 1100 innings per season, Kendall projects at 3.2 win shares per season. However, an argument could certainly be made that Kendall’s 2001-2003 was spent dealing with and recovering from his thumb injury, and that either his career rate or his 2004 performance might be a better indicator of his performance moving forward. If we use his completely average career totals, that looks like Michael Barrett territory, 4.35 WS/1000 innings, which we’ll factor by 1120 innings per season for 4.9 win shares per season. And if we think Kendall’s defensive turnaround was permanent, we can maybe pencil him in for 6 defensive win shares per season, rounded down (way down) from his actual 6.8. Completely subjectively, I’m assigning a 40% probability to the conservative estimate, 45% to the moderate estimate, and 15% to the liberal estimate. That gives a weighted mean of 4.4 fielding win shares per season.
Offensively, Kendall has been fairly consistent. His EqA’s from ages 23 to 26 were in the .289 to .319 range, with a good chunk of that variability being from his home run rate fluctuation. At ages 27 and 28, his thumb injury hindered his effectiveness, and his EqA’s were .241 and .253, right around average for a catcher but not for one with such a hefty contract. In 2003 and 2004, his EqA rebounded to .286 and .280. How has his offensive performance broken down by segment? Here’s a chart:

  AB H SH SF BB HBP SO HR XIP PA PA/BBH PA/K AB/HR BABIP BABOP AB/XIP
1996 414 124 3 4 35 15 30 3 28 471 9.42 15.7 138 0.312 0.0909 14.786
1997 496 143 1 5 49 31 53 8 40 582 7.275 10.98 62 0.306 0.1311 12.4
1998 535 175 2 8 51 31 51 12 39 627 7.64634 12.29 44.583 0.338 0.1905 13.718
1999 280 93 0 4 38 12 32 8 23 334 6.68 10.44 35 0.348 0.2 12.174
2000 579 185 1 4 79 15 79 14 39 678 7.21277 8.582 41.357 0.348 0.1505 14.846
2001 606 161 0 2 44 20 48 10 24 672 10.5 14 60.6 0.275 0.1724 25.25
2002 545 154 0 2 49 9 29 3 28 605 10.431 20.86 181.67 0.293 0.0938 19.464
2003 587 191 1 3 49 25 40 6 32 665 8.98649 16.63 97.833 0.339 0.1304 18.344
2004 574 183 1 4 60 19 41 3 32 658 8.32911 16.05 191.33 0.336 0.0682 17.938


The data clearly illustrates three distinct periods in his career. The first was his prime, beginning with his second season, in which he had okay power, didn’t strike out much, hit a lot of line drives and ground balls and thus had a high batting average on balls in play, and drew a good amount of walks in addition to a ridiculous number of hit by pitches. The second period was his two-year thumb era, during which every aspect of his offensive play regressed except for his strikeout rate, which improved substantially. The third period is ages 29-30, in which his performance would be almost exactly identical if his home run totals were the same; during this period, he walks as much as he did during his peak and gets hit by pitches nearly as frequently, he still hits a ton of line drives and ground balls for singles, and his K rate is very low, but he has virtually no power. Furthermore, it should be noted that he fits the profile of a hitter who will hit well with runners in scoring position: he doesn’t strike out much and hits a lot of line drives and ground balls. If you asked me to predict his offensive production over the next three years, I’d probably reply that his production will look very similar to what it has been the last two years. I don’t think there’s any substantial evidence to indicate his ability to hit for a high batting average, avoid strikeouts, and draw walks and hit by pitches is set for a decline. I also don’t think there’s any substantial evidence to indicate his power will improve. As such, I’ve assigned conservative gut-level probabilities to his offensive win shares production so that there’s a 5% chance of collapse to 2001 levels (9 batting win shares per season), a 30% chance he’ll decline by 10% in each of the next three seasons (16, 15, 13 per season), a 60% chance he’ll do almost exactly the same as in 2004 (18 per season), and a 5% chance his power he’ll equal his 2004 performance level but with one amazing season thrown in over three years (two 18s and a 24). Add it all up and my arbitrary projection for Kendall’s total offensive win shares over the next season is 50.

Combining my projections for offensive and defensive win shares over the next three seasons, Kendall comes out at 63 win shares, or 21 per season. His replacement-level baseline in 2004 was roughly 13.5 win shares. Let’s lower that baseline to 12 since half of my projections included declines in production that would mean Kendall played less (all of the fielding win shares projections did this, and any substantial offensive decline would entail him receiving fewer plate appearances, especially since he hit leadoff all year for Pittsburgh in 2004). That means that these projections see Kendall contributing on average 9 win shares above replacement per season, and that’s a figure that is tempered by conservatism. Using the net win shares value calculator, that would make Kendall’s contract worth a net gain of $2.1m over the next three seasons, or $700K per season. I’m going to arbitrarily assume that market corrections will devalue that, however, and bring that figure down by $500K per season to a mere $200K per—still in the black. I think, therefore, that there’s a very strong likelihood that Jason Kendall’s contract will actually be a good one to have, straight up, over the next three seasons. Of course, Kendall could always lose a year or even his career to catastrophic injury, but he shares that risk with every other player in baseball. In fact, there’s also a substantial risk that I’ve been too conservative here; if we just increase his seasonal win shares above replacement by one (and I could give you dozens of reasons why we should), even with the half-mil market correction per season his contract is worth over a mil per year in net win shares value, which this year was about the 67th percentile of value.

The small handful of you who read this blog when I started may remember I posted the first part of a two-part Jason Kendall analysis when it seemed a remote possibility he could be traded to the catcher-needy Dodgers. Well, that particular rumor isn’t one I’ve seen burning in the hot stove recently, but it sure does make a lot of sense. The Dodgers’ minor league system will almost certainly not produce a decent, major-league ready catcher in the next three seasons. Meanwhile, the Pirates probably don’t have the resources to seriously compete anytime in the next two years. For each team, the marginal value produced by a trade would be somewhat maximized. The Dodgers are a team with a lot of organizational resources that can afford to “overspend” on a player of Jason Kendall’s caliber since, among playoff caliber-teams, value relative to average starts to become more important than value relative to replacement. The Pirates are a team that needs to turn a profit and sort through their farm system, and the uncertainty of when their young talent (especially their young pitching talent) will come together to be able to compete, especially with the organizational advantages owned by the Cubs, Cardinals, and Astros, makes payroll flexibility a premium. Furthermore, J.R. House probably won’t be a star, but he’s got a good shot at being a solid contributor in the major leagues (and the same could be said with a little less enthusiasm for Ronny Paulino). With the Dodgers having a quite deep crop of players in the low minors, I think Jason Kendall for, say, Jonathan Broxton and Willy Aybar would be a very good deal for both clubs. Whether the public relations part of such a deal would be manageable to the Pirates, I really can’t say, although the success of the Giles deal does, I imagine, give the Pirates some political capital—and maybe if the Pirates kicked a little dough LA’s way, LA could throw in Brian Myrow, who could look a lot like Jason Bay to Pirates fans (although I’m not 100% certain the Dodgers still have control over Myrow).

I know this is just annoying, restless hot stove analysis, but, well, as Bill Simmons would say, I feel very strongly about this.

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