Minor setback was ideal for Kendrick
Howie Kendrick always could hit. That was a constant at every step of his ascent through the Angels’ farm system.
The compact infielder batted .367 at Cedar Rapids in 2004, .384 at Class-A Rancho Cucamonga and .342 at double-A Arkansas in 2005 and .369 at triple-A Salt Lake in 2006 -- eye-popping numbers that marked him as a prime prospect. Maybe even a future major league batting champion.
He affirmed that by batting .306 over parts of three seasons with the Angels, though the last two were interrupted by finger and hamstring injuries.
But his ease at the plate vanished this season, eroded by his inability to handle slow breaking pitches. He made it worse by all but completely losing his plate discipline, leaving him clueless in the one place he had always felt so sure.
He began to lose his hold on the starting second base job when Maicer Izturis was inserted into the mix. He was batting .231 when the Angels optioned him to Salt Lake on June 12 and he thought it was the end of his world.
Instead, it turned out to be a new beginning.
“It took me getting sent down to find myself again, to get back up here and actually have some success,” he said.
“Now I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Kendrick drove in a career-high five runs Wednesday in the Angels’ 9-3 rout of the Indians, his confidence at the plate obscuring the memories of his early-season struggles.
He drove in a run in the first with a single through the hole at short off a 3-and-2 pitch from Cleveland starter Aaron Laffey. He drove in two in the fifth with a single on a 2-and-1 fastball from Chris Perez and capped the day with a two-run home run to center in the seventh on the first pitch he saw from reliever Tony Sipp, a 92-mph fastball.
He was selective, seeing a team-high 17 pitches in four at-bats. And he’s batting .377 (23 for 61) with two home runs and 14 runs batted in since his recall, including 10 for 20 with seven RBIs on the Angels’ just-concluded homestand.
“Being sent down, I think it helped me out a lot,” he said. “At the time, I think that was what I needed as a player.
“I didn’t really want to go to triple A, but it was something that I think benefited me and I came back with a new approach.”
The difference in Kendrick has more to do with his mind than the mechanics of his batting stance.
Torii Hunter, Kendrick’s next-locker neighbor in the Angels’ clubhouse, saw Kendrick become stressed as his batting average fell. The demotion increased his anxiety, so Hunter made sure to take him aside and counsel him before he left.
Hunter’s message was empathetic but pointed: We’ve all been there, we’ve all endured slumps and have gone to the minors but the good ones learn from situations like this -- and you’re one of the good ones.
“Instead of being upset about it and whining about it all day, just go down there and use the time to work on what you need to work on and find your swing,” Hunter said. “Find yourself and be ready to come back, because you’re going to be back.
“He’s such a great player, a great talent. Guys like that you can’t really hold down.”
Unless they’re holding themselves back. “At first, he didn’t want to make mistakes. Now he’s like, whatever,” Hunter said. “You just go out and play, and when you play like that you don’t make mistakes.
“He was tentative and tense and now he’s not playing tense. He’s playing more relaxed and at the plate he looks more relaxed. I’m pretty impressed with what he’s doing.”
Though Kendrick will never draw a lot of walks -- he walked only 12 times in 92 games last season -- he’s working counts better. But Manager Mike Scioscia had no qualms with that first-pitch home run.
“That’s a feel,” Scioscia said. “I think when a guy is feeling good in the batter’s box, that’s what happens.”
Kendrick hasn’t won the starting job back but he’s not complaining. He has played in 17 of 22 games since his recall, “enough to where he’s able to stay in the flow of the game and stay sharp and also get some days off here that give him rest,” Scioscia said.
Kendrick said he still considers himself an everyday player. “But I can understand the situation and I’m happy doing what I’m doing,” he said.
“Our ultimate goal is the World Series and I know that we have a great team. Those guys in front of me are doing a great job and when I get that time to play I just want to make the most of it. Regardless of whether I’m playing every day or not I still get to play a lot.”
And enjoy it more.