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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Jason Kendall Retires

Jason Kendall never got an MVP vote.

Of course, you may be saying. Kendall was an awful hitter his past few seasons. He hasn’t even had an OPS+ over 100 since the Curse of the Bambino was still a thing. The Royals signed him-that alone is pretty damning. And plenty of players have never gotten an MVP vote. A vast majority of the people that play in the Major Leagues never get an MVP vote. Sure, sometimes the voters act silly and the next thing you know, Delmon Young finishes in the top 10. And sometimes, you see an oddball down-ballot choice. Remember Jeremy Affeldt's MVP campaign? Neither does Jeremy Affeldt, but it apparently happened back in 2009. But, overall, not receiving any MVP votes is not a huge deal. But Jason Kendall might be the best player to never get an MVP vote.

Many people probably never realized just how good Kendall was in his prime, or never fully appreciated it. It's not a huge surprise; his best seasons came during the Pirates' lowest low points, when the owners were apparently still trying to move the team to Miami after getting the idea from the movie Major League, not realizing that a team had been added there in the past decade. With Brian Giles, Kendall was one of the team's few bright spots. Well, few real bright spots. Aramis Ramirez was there, but he was traded away for nothing before he became the Aramis Ramirez. The team was still treating Randall Simon and Kip Wells like the future solutions to the team's problems. Think about that. Kip Wells is still playing a decade later, but only after a two-year de facto retirement that ended when the Padres realized they were running out of sacrifices to appease the Pitching Gods and prevent the coming apocalypse. That at least beats Simon, who hasn't seen more than 100 games in a season since 2003 and who's lasting mark on the game has been the one he left on one of Milwaukee's racing sausages.

But the point is: Jason Kendall; good player, awful team. It's possible even the Pirates don't even want to acknowledge his time with the team (again, because that would mean acknowledging that they were, for a time, running with a business stratey they got from a Charlie Sheen movie). Which is a shame. He and Brian Giles were not only the faces of the franchise, but much better than I think anyone ever gave them credit for.

Full disclosure; I am a huge fan of the two of them. My family lived in Pittsburgh during their peak; were it not for the team's historic awfulness, I might have become a Pirates fan rather than a Cardinals fan.* That doesn't change that the two were historically great players-I still had a great appreciation for them both, even if I didn’t end up rooting for their team.** I'm not sure that either is a Hall of Fame player, but it’s kind of sad to think neither will likely even get their number retired, despite how tied to the franchise they were, for a time at least.

*Part of the reason I became a Cardinals fan was how hard it was to root for a team as bad as the Pirates, part of it was seeing them frequently as division rivals. The Cards' acquisition of Scott Rolen sealed the deal. Which is probably for the best-I was already an Orioles fan from living in the D.C. area immediately before that. Rooting for two historically teams would have probably been too much for anyone, let alone an eight-year old.


**Also, while I’m recalling my childhood, Jason was also in Backyard Baseball 2001. He was usually my second pick for a team (after Cal Ripken), and always my catcher and lead-off hitter. God, did I love that game. Kendall was pretty good in that, too, though.


Would you believe that Kendall may be one of the 20 best catchers in history? But it’s true-among players who played 50% of their games or more at catcher, Jason Kendall is indeed in the top twenty in WAR, by both Fangraphs and Basebal-Reference. Fangraphs has him with 43.9 WAR, while B-R credits him with 37.7.

Part of that value was from his longevity. Only seven primary catchers played in more games than Kendall (Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk, Ted Simmons, Gary Carter, Bob Boone, Johnny Bench, and Yogi Berra). That also makes his 95 OPS+ more impressive; the fact that he could take that sort of beating (over fifteen years, too) while being about league average is impressive. As Matthew Pouliot mentions, part of the reason he kept finding work was because he was supposed to work well with pitching staffs, meaning he probably had some extra defensive value as well.

But just saying that he was a league average hitter isn’t totally accurate, either. He was much better in his youth, before age and injuries took their tolls. Joe Mauer has received a lot of attention in recent years for his batting average and OBP out of a battery position. Kendall was the proto-Mauer. He’s one of 16 catchers with multiple seasons with an OBP over .400. Lower the threshold to just .399 and he has four such seasons; only Mickey Cochrane, Joe Mauer, Johnny Bassler, and Wally Schang have more.

He may not have had much power, but he did have speed. With 189 steals, Kendall ranked second all-time among catchers behind only Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan. His 75 homers may not be impressive, but he did manage 394 doubles (fifth for catchers all-time) and 35 triples. Overall, he’s thirteenth all-time among catchers in total bases (and four away from eleventh place).

He was a shell of his former self in his later years, a large part of which was due to injuries. His last year in Pittsburgh, 2004, also marked his final year with an above-average OPS. At 31, he at least finally got to play for a winning team in the Oakland A’s (which likely fell in love with his sharp eye), and finally made the playoffs for the first time the next year. His game deteriorated rather quickly after that, though. It was sad to see someone who started off at such a Hall of Fame pace fall so far so fast. He had never made any MVP ballots up until that point (which looks like a bit of an oversight now), and he obviously wouldn’t after. But, for a while, he was the best player on the worst team in the majors, and it still meant something, even if not everyone realized it.

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