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Nationals’ Howie Kendrick might be baseball’s biggest surprise this season

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There have been plenty of surprise performers so far around baseball. But Howie Kendrick doesn’t get enough credit for what he’s doing for the Nationals so far...

MLB: Washington Nationals at Colorado Rockies Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

If someone asked you who the biggest surprise player has been in baseball so far this season, who do you think of? Matthew Boyd? Hunter Dozier? Caleb Smith?

Well, Washington Nationals utility man Howie Kendrick deserves more love in that category.

Not too much was expected out of Kendrick this year. He was coming off of a brutal Achilles injury and seemed to be ticketed for a bench role after the acquisition of Brian Dozier.

“He was a great addition by us, and a huge loss for us last year,” GM Mike Rizzo told the Sports Junkies this April.

“It was great to get him back and his leadership skills and his skill set and what he brings to the ballclub are immense.”

“He rolls out of bed and can hit. He’s one of the most respected major league players that I’ve ever been associated with. He’s a force in the clubhouse, and he gives you a great at-bat every time out.”

After a minor hamstring injury in Spring Training, Kendrick was forced to open the season on the Injured List. However, since his activation, he’s been nothing short of a revelation.

So far this year, he’s slashing a remarkable .349/.413/.587 with four home runs and 14 RBI.

His 1.001 OPS ranks 14th in the majors and sixth in the National League among those with at least 70 plate appearances.

“He’s seeing the ball really well, but he’s trusting his hands, and he’s a good hitter,” manager Dave Martinez said of Kendrick back in April.

While it might be a bit too much to expect him to continue with these ludicrous stats all season, his peripherals indicate that he can at least stay close to that level this year.

The high average is far from a surprise for someone with a career .292 batting average who has five seasons batting over .300, but the increased power has certainly been a pleasant surprise so far for Kendrick, who appears to have increased his launch angle.

In 2015, 2016 and 2017, Kendrick held average launch angles of 1.1, 1.6 and 0.8 respectively. But in 2018 he increased that to 7.9, and now it has risen to 11.8 this time around. Whether it’s a conscious effort or not, it’s definitely helping Kendrick perform.

Following Friday’s game, Kendrick had an average exit velocity of 93.3mph, good enough for 19th in the majors out of 333 qualifiers. His solid 1-for-3 effort last night helped matters given that three of his four batted balls exceeded 97mph.

Both the increased launch angle and high average exit velocity leads to an excellent Barrel%, the percentage of batted balls that have an expected batting average over .500 and an expected slugging percentage over 1.500.

Kendrick’s 12.0 percent entering Friday’s game ranked 11th in the majors. He ranks just ahead of Nelson Cruz, Cody Bellinger, and even Mike Trout in that category.

In short, he’s providing high-quality contact at a high rate, so his hot start is far from a fluke.

That means that only real worry with Kendrick in the short-term, as it has been throughout his time with the Nats, is keeping him healthy for as much of the season as possible. This is perhaps even more important after his Achilles injury last year.

“The biggest thing with Howie is keeping him healthy,” Martinez said of Kendrick in April. “Howie is Howie. He knows his role.”

The injury to Anthony Rendon has allowed Kendrick to play frequently at third base, but he will likely go back to primarily featuring at the keystone once Rendon returns.

That leaves an interesting playing time conundrum with new signing Dozier. The former Minnesota Twin was supposed to be the perfect bridge to Carter Kieboom at second. However, he continues to scuffle through the team’s first 31 games.

“We’ve also got to get [Dozier] going,” Martinez said earlier this month.

“Once he starts going, which I’ve seen some big improvement lately, he’s going to be fine, and he’s going to help us win a lot of games.”

But with Dozier’s measly .181/.294/.319 slash line, it’s clear that Kendrick should be the primary starter. The difference between their production at the plate is too large right now, and Dozier’s superior defense doesn’t make up the gap.

The ideal split, once Rendon is back, would be to give Kendrick around three-quarters of the starts, and give Dozier the other quarter. That would have Kendrick starting about five times a week, and Dozier once or twice.

That provides the perfect balance of playing the more productive player, while also managing his health and getting Dozier hot again. Then if Dozier heats up and Kendrick cools off, the situation can be reassessed.

Kendrick continues to swing a hot bat despite the somewhat low expectations coming into the year. On a team that needs an offensive spark right now, Kendrick is that man and will be the key to keeping this team afloat with all the injuries.