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.