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Jason Kendall was a really, really good player

Jul 24, 2012, 6:07 PM EDT

Jason Kendall AP

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, hittingĀ .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.

  1. schlom - Jul 24, 2012 at 6:19 PM

    I always thought it was the brutal ankle injury he suffered on July 4, 1999 that ruined his career.

    • Matthew Pouliot - Jul 24, 2012 at 6:22 PM

      Probably should have mentioned that somewhere in there too — unfortunately, most of the pictures of Kendall in a Pirates uniform online are from the broken ankle — but he actually came back really strong the next season. I always thought it was the torn thumb ligament and trying to play through it that did him in.

    • thefalcon123 - Jul 25, 2012 at 9:38 AM

      He still had some fine seasons after that:

      2000: .320/.412/.470
      2003: 325/.399/.416
      2004: .319/.399/.390

      I think the bigger culprit is that catcher’s tend to age horribly.

      • schrutebeetfarms - Jul 25, 2012 at 1:48 PM

        “Catchers tend to age horribly? Ugh!”

        – Twins fans

  2. charlutes - Jul 24, 2012 at 6:19 PM

    whatevs

    • hammyofdoom - Jul 24, 2012 at 9:19 PM

      Just curious, why even post if your reaction is “whatevs”? I’m genuinely curious

      • comeonnowguys - Jul 25, 2012 at 9:16 AM

        Careful what doors you open, you may be ruined by what you see inside…

      • jl9830 - Jul 25, 2012 at 9:41 AM

        To get your exact response. It’s called a “troll.”

  3. hittfamily - Jul 24, 2012 at 6:25 PM

    Doe anyone see an unshaven Theo Epstein when they see that pic?

  4. royhobbs39 - Jul 24, 2012 at 6:41 PM

    One of the worst ankle injuries I have ever seen. I always thought he would have been a HOFer if not for that one injury…

    • thefalcon123 - Jul 25, 2012 at 9:44 AM

      But…he was virtually the same player in 2000. He came back from the injury and hit .320/.412/.470 with his career high in home runs with 14. In the 5 years after that injury, he still hit .302/.380/.398. As a high average hitter with very little power before, this dropoff isn’t that uncommon.

  5. brewcrewfan54 - Jul 24, 2012 at 6:43 PM

    Dude was tough as hell. In a bench clearer he’s the catcher I’d want chasing the batter down.

    • nightman13 - Jul 24, 2012 at 9:43 PM

      I loved him in Milwaukee, I’d hope that some of our younger guys that played with him inherited that toughness.

      • istillbelieveinblue - Jul 25, 2012 at 7:43 AM

        “You just summed up your entire sorry career here in one sentence! If you had a tenth of the heart of Ruettiger, you’d have made All-American by now! As it is, you just went from third team to the prep team! Get out of here!”

  6. buccobrigade - Jul 24, 2012 at 7:21 PM

    He was a jerk in the Pirates locker room though. I did still like him as a player though

  7. stex52 - Jul 24, 2012 at 9:34 PM

    Fitting tribute for a tough catcher. Thanks for the round-up, Matt.

    • dwrek5 - Jul 24, 2012 at 11:35 PM

      +1, sometimes a player’s later years can shade our perception of a career. Appreciate the historical perspective.

      • florida76 - Jul 25, 2012 at 1:46 AM

        Agreed, the constant losing with the Pirates eventually wore on Kendall toward the end of his time in Pittsburgh, and his attitude slipped. Still, that’s really not representative of his entire career, and at his peak, was one of the finest catchers in Pirate history.

        Classic case of a player who will be appreciated later, with the benefit of hindsight.

  8. hushbrother - Jul 24, 2012 at 10:18 PM

    He was running the bases and his leg came own awkwardly on the base, injuring his thumb.

  9. sorryimbusypolishingmy6lombardis - Jul 24, 2012 at 10:46 PM

    “Welcome to hell.” – inside joke for Bucco fans only!

  10. lionsfan415 - Jul 25, 2012 at 8:32 AM

    Living in KC i will tell you that in his last years Kendall could barely hit the ball back to the pitcher, never seen a weaker MLB pro, he made Alcides Escobar look like Hank Aaron

    • comeonnowguys - Jul 25, 2012 at 9:18 AM

      Key phrase in that being “his last years.”

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