Jason Kendall was a really, really good player


Jason Kendall’s offense turned into a punchline during the second half of his career, when he could occasionally go weeks at a time without collecting out an extra-base hit. Unfortunately, that obscures the fact that he was an excellent player, one of the best in the National League, for a time before a thumb injury sapped his power.

In his first five seasons, Kendall hit .314/.402/.456 with 45 homers, 265 RBI and 93 steals in 2,294 at-bats for the Pirates. That’s good for an .858 OPS, which is third all-time among players to catch at least 500 games in their first five seasons:

.947 – Mike Piazza (1992-96, Los Angeles Dodgers)
.880 – Roy Campanella (1948-52, Brooklyn)
.858 – Jason Kendall (1996-2000, Pittsburgh)
.858 – Mickey Cochrane (1925-29, Philadelphia A’s)
.853 – Brian McCann (2005-09, Atlanta)
.803 – Chief Meyers (1909-13, New York Giants)
.799 – Johnny Bench (1967-71, Cincinnati)
.773 – Rick Farrell (1929-33, St. Louis Browns)
.763 – Thurman Munson (1969-73, New York Yankees)
.761 – Russell Martin (2006-10, Los Angeles Dodgers)

Basically, Kendall was a more durable Joe Mauer initially. Mauer didn’t make the 500-game cutoff above (he would have been fifth if he had), but he basically had the same line as Kendall while playing 100 fewer games:

.314/.403/.456, 45 HR for Kendall
.317/.399/.457, 44 HR for Mauer

Of course, Kendall had just two more good offensive seasons in his career after age 26. He hit .325/.399/.416 and .319/.399/.390 in his last two years with the Pirates in 2003 and ’04. Following his trade to Oakland, he was a liability offensively the rest of his career, hitting .260/.333/.318 with eight homers in 3,021 at-bats.

Still, for as little as Kendall contributed offensively, his teams kept playing him because pitchers enjoyed working with him. There are few players in the game’s history who wanted to win as much as Kendall did. That his best years were largely wasted in Pittsburgh was a shame.

Kendall retired Tuesday fifth in major league history with 2,025 games caught. His overall .288/.366/.378 line is still plenty good for a catcher. Among those who played at least 80 percent of their games at catcher, only Ivan Rodriguez (2,844) and Carlton Fisk (2,356) finished with more hits than Kendall’s 2,195. He tops that list with 189 career steals, and he’s seventh with 1,030 runs scored despite largely playing for poor offenses. His .366 OBP ranks 10th among catchers with at least 3,000 plate appearances, and Kendall had about 1,000 more plate appearances than anyone else in the top 25.

It seems an odd thing to write about a guy who played 15 years, but Kendall had a possible Hall of Fame-career ruined by injuries. For five years, he was on that path, and while he took quite a detour afterwards, he continued to find work for another 10 years. Even now, it’s likely that he’d be some team’s backup catcher if his body was sound. He’d be hitting .240 and rarely getting a ball out of the infield, but some team would want his leadership and trademark competitive streak on the bench.

2018 Preview: Oakland Athletics

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Oakland Athletics.

The A’s have finished last in the AL West for three straight years. If you believe the folks at Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus and anyone else who makes projections, they’ll either finish in last again or come within a game or two of it. There’s not a lot of suspense to my prediction here — I’ll end up picking them to finish fifth — but the prediction is not really what a preview is about. It’s about the shape of the team and what we can expect in broad brushes.

While I can’t foretell greatness for the 2018 Oakland Athletics, I can’t say the broad brushes are bad. At least if you grade on a curve. It won’t be a good team, but they’ll be worth watching because they have a lot of good, fun and interesting players who are likely to be on that next good Oakland A’s team in the way Stephen Vogt and Brett Lawrie were not.

Their lineup is pretty spiffy for a second division team. Khris Davis, Matt Joyce and new acquisition Jonathan Lucroy are known commodities both inside and outside A’s fandom, but people who don’t pay much attention to the goings on in Oakland may not be fully aware of just how good and promising Matt Olson and Matt Chapman are. Olson hit 24 homers in 59 games last year. That’s not a sustainable pace — the league will figure him out to — but even regression from that will be fantastic. Chapman hit 14 in half a season and played superior defense at third base. He also struck out 92 times in half a season but who’s counting? [editor: everyone counts everything in baseball]. Hey, look, dingers! Yonder Alonso and Ryon Healey are gone from last year’s crew and Stephen Piscotty is new in town. Marcus Semien is a decent bat for a shortstop. All-in-all that’s a lineup that will play, and play very, very well if Chapman and Olson are what they’ve shown themselves to be thus far.

At the risk of criminal understatement, allow me to observe that the starting pitching is not as promising. Sean Manaea and Kendall Graveman are at the top of the rotation. On good teams they’d be in the middle or the back. The rest of their rotation options — Daniel Mengden, Andrew Triggs, Paul Blackburn, who will miss the start of the regular season with a sore forearm — are less-than-impressive. They just signed Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson from the scrap heap hoping, I guess, to recreate some of that, uh, 2010 magic? 2010 was a long time ago!

Jharel Cotton would’ve been in the mix but he’s now out for the year for Tommy John surgery. A.J. Puk, the A’s top prospect would be a nice midseason upgrade, but he’s hurt. Not seriously, but the A’s will probably be more careful with him now than they would’ve been, which still would’ve been careful. All-in-all, there was a lack of quality arms to begin with, but with the injuries mounting, starting pitching could be a trash fire for the A’s.

The bullpen has a new look with newcomers Ryan Buchter, Yusmeiro Petit and Emilio Pagan joining 2017 in-season additions Blake Treinen and Chris Hatcher. That’s a pretty good and pretty interesting group which was going to see a lot of innings as it was in our new bullpenning era, but now that the rotation looks shaky as hell, they’ll see even more. If you’re curious about the limits of leaning on a bullpen, postseason-style are, Oakland will be running a pretty fun experiment to that end in 2018.

I look at this club’s bats — especially the young guys upon whom its so very easy to project so much promise and optimism, because I’m a sucker for hitting prospects — and think that they can outperform those statsy projections and be better than the Rangers and Mariners. Then I think about how the upside — UPSIDE! — for the rotation is 380 innings from Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson and I sorta wanna cry.

If the A’s get some breaks and some unexpectedly good (or average) pitching performances, they could certainly finish above the cellar. Perhaps well above the cellar. For now, though, I’m guessing that they’ll be in 80-win territory at best and finish last in a division that does not have any teams totally punting, making for a competitive and, subsequently, tough year.

Prediction: Fifth place, AL West