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Thursday, July 13, 2006

I AM SECOND
From certain corners of Angel fandom, the cry is loud and clear: dispatch Adam Kennedy at any costs and start the Howie Kendrick revolution as soon as possible.

It is easy to see why people are calling for this; we all know it's coming at the end of the year, anyway, Adam's in a slump, Howie continues to rip it up at AAA, etc.

Let's check out Adam's performances, offensively and defensively, over the past few seasons. EqA is Baseball Prospectus' Equivalent Average (.260 is the league average), ZR is Zone Rating as reported on the player cards at ESPN.com (the average for second basemen is usually around .830):
Year  Age   EqA   ZR
2001 25 .239 .888
2002 26 .274 .854
2003 27 .263 .853
2004 28 .264 .847
2005 29 .264 .836
2006 30 .233 .797
What we're seeing here is a fairly usual shape to his performance, both offensively and defensively. I think the jump from his age 25 to age 26 seasons is a bit large, and his consistency from 2003 through 2005 is a bit more stable than most players; it is also true that his decline this year, though expected, has thus far been steeper than most players'.

As for the defense, players do generally decline as they get older. I wouldn't read too much into his 2006 numbers so far, as there is a a lot of noise in defensive numbers that usually take at least a season or two to sort out, but I don't think it's wrong to conclude that his fielding has declined a bit.

What are the chances of Adam getting his offense back on track? Is he doing anything differently at the plate?

Fangraphs has batted-ball data for all hitters; let's take a look at Adam again over the past few years (the columns should be rather self-explanatory):
Year  Age   EqA   BB%   K%    GB%   FB%   LD%
2001 25 .239 5.3 14.9 ---- ---- ----
2002 26 .274 3.9 16.9 33.5 40.3 26.2
2003 27 .263 9.1 16.3 31.6 42.0 26.5
2004 28 .264 8.1 19.7 39.7 39.7 20.5
2005 29 .264 6.5 15.4 40.1 35.2 24.8
2006 30 .233 7.2 17.8 38.9 34.8 26.2
That's a lot of numbers that look alike, so let me just underline a few things. For one, we see something that's really obvious to long-time Angel-watchers: Adam is hitting more and more balls on the ground, less in the air, and the result, as we've seen, is a drastic reduction in his extra-base power.

For another, all of his rates are very much line with his successful 2004 and 2005 campaigns, so nothing Adam Kennedy is doing this year in terms of hitting the ball on the ground or the air, or his walks and strikeouts, explains his precipitous decline.

Well, once he hits the balls, what kind of success is he having? What is his Batting Average on Balls in Play (i.e. no strikeouts and no home runs)?
Year  Age   EqA  BABIP
2001 25 .239 .307
2002 26 .274 .364
2003 27 .263 .298
2004 28 .264 .328
2005 29 .264 .351
2006 30 .233 .309
Now we're on to something, a little bit. Here's something to remember: flyballs in the park are outs more often than groundballs are. Why? The difference is mostly in that flyballs include infield pop-ups, which are virtually certain outs (they are caught around 97% of the time), but groundballs have ways of finding holes and bad hops.

Let's look at the following:
Year  Age   EqA  BABIP  GB/FB
2001 25 .239 .307 -----
2002 26 .274 .364 .83
2003 27 .263 .298 .75
2004 28 .264 .328 1.00
2005 29 .264 .351 1.14
2006 30 .233 .309 1.12
2003 was Adam's most flyball-happy year, and thus his BABIP was down; fortunately, that was also the year he drew walks most frequently, and 8.3% of his flyballs went over the fence, a career high (his Isolated Power, or extra-bases per at-bat, was .129, which is okay for a middle infielder). So we was able to overcome that BABIP with walks and power, and have a productive season.

2005 is at the opposite end of the spectrum in many ways. Adam hit tons of balls on the ground and racked up the singles, but his Isolated Power was a mere .070, easily the lowest of his career.

This year, Adam is actually hitting with more power, with his ISO up to .104 at the break. But he's not getting the singles. Comparing the past two seasons:
Year   1B/AB   2B/AB   3B/AB   HR/AB
2005 .240 .055 .000 .005
2006 .181 .059 .011 .007
Incredibly, only 6% of AK's at-bats in 2005 ended with an extra-base hit; he's up to 7.7% this year, a modest improvement.

But the problem is those singles; his groundballs just aren't finding holes. If he were getting a single in just 20% of his at-bats, he'd be hitting .278 with an OBP of .329 and a SLG of .381; not too hot, but a lot better than the 259/315/363 he's thus far posted. And if he were getting singles at the same rate he did last season, he'd be hitting 319/366/422, which would pretty much rock.

So the million dollar question: is there any reason to believe that Adam's groundballs are going to find more holes in the second half?

And that's a question I just don't have an answer to. You can look at pitchers and the BABIP they allow, and you know that their defense is a huge factor in that. But batters create their own BABIP to a large degree. But there is also a lot of year-to-year variation, caused by such a myriad of factors that you can't really assign it to any one thing in most cases. (And his BABIP last season was abnormally high, so you would expect some regression from it.)

If I had to guess, I would say that Adam is going to bounce back at some point, be it this season or next. Yes, he's declining as he ages, as expected, and he might not be a good bet to put up another streak of seasons like from 2002-2005, but it's rare that a player would drop in skill level so quickly and immediately.

Of course, the question the Angels have to ask is whether or not Adam Kennedy or Howie Kendrick is a better bet to hit over the next 70ish games, and whether or not there is a substantial defensive/baserunning difference.

I don't really know what Howie would hit for the Angels this year. 300/320/450, maybe? If he can do that with average defense, there's a good chance he'd be better than Adam. But I don't know, and I don't think the choice is an easy or clear one. At this point, I can't really begrudge the Angel braintrust for going either way.

Comments:
Nicely done. There are some other factors to consider, of course, such as whether the Angels would be able to deal Kennedy to fill another need, so that playing Kendrick at second could also mean upgrading the bullpen. Strictly in terms of comparing Kennedy and Kendrick, though, I'm mostly in agreement that a case can be made either way, though my suspicion is that you're overestimating what Kendrick would do offensively for the rest of '06. Everything else being equal, I tend to believe that Kennedy will bounce back to adequacy.

I will be watching with interest to see if his fortunes in the second half remain tied to his G/F ratio and his BABIP for grounders. Good job.
 
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