Howie Kendrick’s Game 7 homer shouldn’t be overlooked; neither should his potential for the 2020 Nationals

Since baseball for the moment exists only in the virtual realm, maybe it’s time to revisit and properly appreciate Howie Kendrick’s inexpressibly clutch home run in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series. 

By way of refresher, here’s Kendrick’s opposite-field shot against Astros reliever Will Harris (and his 1.50 ERA during the regular season) that turned a 2-1 Nationals deficit into a 3-2 Nats lead with one out in the seventh inning: 

To repeat: That’s a late-inning homer in the final game of the World Series that turned a deficit into a lead. Everyone watching recognized it as a huge moment, and that was especially the case once Patrick Corbin and Daniel Hudson made the Washington lead stand up. Yes, the Nats would go on to win the game 6-2, but remove Hendrick’s homer from the delicate calculus of baseball and everything else may not unfold in a similar manner. Maybe, though, we’re not quite recognizing Kendrick’s homer for what it is, and what it is is one of the single biggest moments in MLB history. 

If we are as a baseball culture giving short shrift to Kendrick’s iconic blast, then it’s somewhat understandable. After all, since the conclusion of the 2019 World Series, we the people of baseball have been distracted by massive free agent signings and a sign-stealing scandal that threatened to upend the sport before the global coronavirus pandemic came along and <em>did</em> upend the sport. The Gregorian calendar may tell us it’s been a mere four-and-a-half months since Kendrick’s clout, but the emotional calendar says it’s been, oh, four-and-a-half years. So let’s take advantage of the ongoing baseball standstill and give Kendrick’s series-turning homer a bit more attention. 

You may be familiar with a stat called Win Probably Added (WPA), which measures how much a single event — such as a hit, strikeout, or nifty grab in the field — increases or decreases a team’s chances of winning a given game. An outgrowth of that is cWPA, or Championship Win Probability Added. That’s the percentage by which a single play increases a team’s odds of winning it all — i.e., the World Series. cWPA is basically a way of quantifying some of the biggest moments in postseason history. 

Thanks to the very excellent Baseball Gauge we have the highest cWPAs of all-time all in one place. Click here and you can see them. You’ll find that Kendrick’s home run presently ranks 10th all time with a cWPA of 34.8, which means with that one swing Kendrick improved the Nats’ chances of winning both belt and title by almost 35 percent. That’s obviously a whopping figure. 

If we want to make some qualitative adjustments to the rankings, we can throw out the ones ahead of Kendrick whose teams, despite their efforts, failed to win the World Series. That means we can carve out Yogi Berra’s three-run homer in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, Francisco Cabrera’s game-winning single in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, and Rajai Davis’ homer off Aroldis Chapman in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. After taking those measures, you can say Kendrick’s homer off Harris — the first opposite field homer allowed by Harris since 2017 — was the seventh-biggest play in MLB history. Trim the list down to home runs for teams that went on to win the World Series, and only Hal Smith’s clout in the 1960 World Series has a higher cWPA.

Had Kendrick not flicked his bat at that Harris cutter low and away and scooped it off the right field foul pole 326 feet away — had he not authored the Miracle at Minute Maid — the Astros likely would’ve won the World Series for the second time in three years. Even after Anthony Rendon’s homer off Zack Greinke earlier in the inning, the Nats’ still had just a 27 percent chance of winning Game 7. Juan Soto’s walk in front of Kendrick nudged that figure up just a bit, and then Kendrick’s homer sent his team’s win probability off a trampoline — basically, it turned a one in three shot at winning the World Series into a two in three shot. And know that these win probability figures aren’t just plucked out of the ether. They’re backed by decades upon decades of play-by-play data. These percentages reflect what’s happened in actual baseball games over the sprawl of history.

Also consider that if the Astros prevailed, then the sign-stealing scandal that descended upon the game shortly thereafter and called into doubt the 2017 and 2018 outcomes would’ve possibly engulfed a third World Series. That’s because Washington catcher Kurt Suzuki back in February said there’s “no question” the Astros were stealing signs during the 2019 World Series. Since the Astros lost that series — again, in large measure because of Kendrick’s homer — that allegation didn’t carry as much weight as it otherwise would have. In that sense, Kendrick’s home run may well have secured the first undisputed World Series since 2016. 

Whenever we get around to playing baseball for keeps in 2020, Kendrick at the Nationals’ home opener is going to get a deserved hero’s welcome. The man who hit one of the most important homers in baseball history is back in D.C. on a one-year contract for his age-36 season. Normally a player of that age coming off a season in which he had a batting average 50 points higher than his career mark would seem like a resounding candidate for regression. Kendrick, though, may be an exception. 

Last season, Kendrick made remarkable strides when it comes to quality of contact at the plate. Consider the following: 

  • In 2019, Kendrick ranked in the top eight percent of the league in average exit velocity. 
  • He ranked in the top six percent of the league in hard-hit rate. 
  • He ranked in the top two percent of the league in damage on contact. 
  • His expected batting average of .336 was right in line with his actual average of .344, and his expected slugging percentage of .622 was significantly higher than his actual slugging percentage of .572. 
  • Kendrick did all this while striking out just 13.2 percent of the time, and which is a deeply impressive figure for a hitter in 2019 putting up those kinds of power numbers. 

Now let’s turn to an advanced metric called expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). xwOBA grows out of wOBA, which assigns proper value to every possible offensive event that happens while a batter is at the plate. Those proper valuations of singles, doubles, homers, walks, etc., distinguish wOBA from more traditional measures like AVG, OBP, and SLG. Also, for simplicity wOBA is scaled to look like OBP, which means that, say, .400 is elite and .290 is pretty poor. 

All of that brings us back to xwOBA, which is an estimation of what a hitter’s wOBA should be based on things like exit velocity off the bat and launch angle. xwOBA attempts to strip away luck — bad or good — and defensive play from wOBA and identify a hitter’s baseline skill. It’s useful for getting an idea of how a hitter figures to perform in the near-term future. Basically, if a hitter’s xwOBA is significantly lower than his wOBA, he’s probably going to come back to earth at some point. There’s some evidence that slower players tend to underperform relative to their xwOBA and faster players tend to overperform, but even so xwOBA has utility. On the other side of things, if a hitter’s xwOBA is quite a bit higher than his wOBA, then better days are likely ahead. In Kendrick’s case, he put up an impressive wOBA of .400 last season, which ranked in the top four percent of MLB. His xwOBA, however, was even higher — .419, which ranked in the top two percent of the league. As great as Kendrick was last season — he slashed .344/.395/.572 with 17 home runs in 121 games — he should’ve been even better based on how well he laid wood on the ball. 

In related matters, Kendrick also increased his aforementioned launch angle to a more optimal 11.0 degrees. That’s a fairly common approach these days, what with the presence of the rabbit ball and the related emphasis on driving the ball in the air, but not everyone who attempts to rebuild his swing along those lines can make it work. Kendrick appears to have succeeded. Underpinning the more powerful offensive profile is, yes, a change to his swing prior to the 2019 season. Kendrick started his hands lower prior to his load phase, which naturally allowed him to attack the ball on a bit of an upward path. That, in turn, better allowed him to “elevate and celebrate,” as recent baseball parlance puts it. 

As noted, Kendrick is now 36, and depending upon how the revised baseball calendar stretches, he could be 37 for the majority of the 2020 season. At that age, sudden decline is a distinct possibility. That said, everything about 2019 says Kendrick has found a new level at the plate, at least for the near term. That’s certainly the hope for the Nats, who’ll need Kendrick and others to compensate as much as possible for the loss of Rendon to free agency. If Kendrick approximates his 2019 performance, then perhaps he’ll have another shot at October immortality. Even if that doesn’t come to pass, though, he’ll always be the owner of a truly legendary World Series home run, thanks in part to his willingness to reconstruct himself as a hitter at an age when most careers are already over.

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