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HOWIE KENDRICK HITS IT BIG

Not long ago, the Angels' second baseman could barely scare up interest from a junior college—then an Angel showed up in his life, and the career of a future batting champ was born

IN THIS era ofjacked-up power hitters and on-base specialists who work deep counts, Angelssecond baseman Howie Kendrick's foremost skill is almost quaint: He hits hardline drives where there are no fielders. In doing so, he rarely alters hisswing, tries to crank moonballs or jerks one down the line. Neither does helunge, teeter or lean. Just one short, efficient cut after another, handsslicing through the hitting zone. Outfielder Torii Hunter, who joined theAngels this off-season as a free agent, was taken aback.

"Anytime youhit the ball so hard that it knuckles, that means you squared it up," saysHunter. "The first time I saw him take BP, he knuckled it like 10 times. Idon't think I did it 10 times all last season."

Kendrick's abilityto connect on fastballs is such that when he was in rookie ball, his manager,Tom Kotchman, used to judge pitchers by Kendrick, not the other way around.Says Kotchman, "If a guy gets a fastball by him, you better check the gun,'cause it's got to be in the mid-90s." Last year, Kendrick hit .322 in 88games, his season twice interrupted by trips to the disabled list withfractured fingers on his left hand. In four minor league seasons before that,in order and with eerie consistency, he hit .368, .367, .367 and .369. Thereare talented baseball players who go their entire career and never hit .300 fora full season—Johnny Bench and Tino Martinez, for example. In the case of the24-year-old Kendrick, it's conceivable that he could go his entire career andnever hit below .300. "It's not a matter of if he'll hit .300," says anAmerican League scout, "but how high in the threes."

As such, Kendrickinspires comparisons with Bill Madlock and Kirby Puckett, and prompts observersto draw on old bromides such as He can literally roll out of bed and hit .300(uttered by Reggie Willits and Gary Matthews Jr., both Angels outfielders) orHe's a guy who could hit when he fell out of the womb (Kotchman). Presumably,the only time Kendrick couldn't lace a fastball to right center was while inutero, and then only for lack of defined appendages.

So why then did ittake so long for anyone to notice? Coming out of West Nassau High in Callahan,Fla., a small town 20 miles northwest of Jacksonville, Kendrick received noscholarship offers. He tried out for a few junior colleges, but drew nointerest until he got a late offer from St. Johns River, an out-of-the-waycommunity college in northeast Florida with a mediocre baseball program."They offered me books and tuition, and I was like, 'Yes! I'm going to getto play junior college baseball!'" says Kendrick, without sarcasm. To saySt. Johns was off the scouting map would be an understatement. As Kotchman, whohas also been an Angels scout for more than two decades, likes to say, "Thelast guy drafted out of that school went to Vietnam."

Yet the Angelsfound him, if only by chance. On a whim Kotchman went to see Kendrick play inTampa in early 2002 after hearing about him from Ernie Rossean, the coach atBrevard Community College outside Orlando. After watching a few minutes of BP,Kotchman ran to his car to get his video camera. "My goodness, the kid hitthe ball," he recalls. "I couldn't believe there weren't other scoutsthere. And other JCs cut this guy? What were they thinking?" For theremainder of the season, Kotchman wouldn't even approach Kendrick at games,lest his secret get out. In '02 Anaheim took Kendrick in the 10th round of thedraft. As for why he went undiscovered for so long, both Kendrick and Kotchmanare somewhat flummoxed, though each ends up blaming geography. "His schoolwas way out in the sticks, and he didn't play summer ball," says Kotchman,whose son, Casey, plays alongside Kendrick in the Angels infield. "Hey, I'mjust glad we were the ones that found him."

Still, Kendrickwas far from a sure thing. Yes, he could hit, but he was a mess defensively."If you saw him three or four years ago, probably the furthest thing youcould project was that this young man would play second base in the majorleagues," says Angels manager Mike Scioscia. Kendrick, who had playedshortstop in high school, said that he'd never been taught certain defensivefundamentals—bunt defense, cutoffs, rundowns—until he reached the minors. Nordid he have much power or speed. "To be honest, I never expected him tomake it," says one early minor league teammate. "Guys like him wash outall the time. But he had one incredible tool. He could hit foraverage."

ASK Kendrick aboutthat ability, and he'll tell you he can't remember a time when he couldn't hit.Even as a five-year-old it came easy. Back then he used to play a game calledStrikeout with his sisters and cousins. They'd use a broom handle as a bat andcollect shirtfuls of the small, spiky burrs that fell off a sprawling tree inhis grandmother's backyard in Callahan. One kid hit, and the others pitched theburrs or fielded. Whiff or hit a pop-up that was caught (the downward arc ofthe burr slowed by the looming branches above), and the next hitter was up.Given that the burrs were gumball-sized, staying up at the plate should havebeen tough, right? "You'd think so," says Kendrick's younger sister,Michelle, "but we couldn't strike him out. Sometimes he'd be up therehitting for 20 or 30 minutes. Usually, I'd just quit."

Kendrick spentmuch of his youth in that yard. He never knew his father, and his mother was anArmy staff sergeant who traveled extensively and was away from home for monthsat a time. Howie and his two sisters were raised, for the most part, by theirmaternal grandmother, Ruth Woods, with whom he was especially close. (He calledher Mama.) Along with two great aunts and assorted cousins, the Kendricksshared Woods's double-wide trailer at the end of a dusty road on the outskirtsof Callahan. The town's population was just over 900, and most of the peopleseemed to be related to Kendrick. All 12 of Woods's kids, plus all of theirkids, lived in the area. Says Kendrick, "We'd have full teams on both sidesfor baseball or football made up of just cousins."

From an early ageKendrick was obsessed with hitting. Whatever he could smack with a broomstick,be it a pebble or a piece of glass, he'd send soaring into the woods, orsometimes into one of Mama's windows. After one shattered pane too many, shesigned him up for T-ball, and there he fell in love with the game. Through highschool, he played only baseball, a Braves fan who loved not only David Justiceand John Smoltz, but also Hank Aaron, whose clean stroke he came to admire fromwatching old footage of the Hammer. Along the way, his grandmother providedmotivation and discipline. If he got in trouble, out came the switch. When hebriefly thought of quitting a team as a 12-year-old, she told him to march hisbutt right back out there.

By the timeKendrick debuted in the majors, on April 26, 2006, Woods was stricken by lungcancer, the result of a lifetime of smoking. She watched that first game athome, telling everyone who called, "That's my boy on TV playingbaseball!" and afterward he sent her the game jersey. Later that year shedied. "When people are hard on me now, when things aren't where they needto be, I can just remember her and where I came from," says Kendrick."She's the reason I'm in baseball and the reason I'm so successful. Shetaught me you have to work hard in life and be respectful."

That attitude isevident in his approach to the game today. Though reserved and polite, morelikely to work a crossword than joke around in the clubhouse, Kendrick isfanatical about practice. A minor league teammate says he never heard Kendrickhave a conversation not about baseball, and Scioscia says Kendrick"practices as hard as any player we've had." As for Kendrick's hitting,Matthews says, "You watch his BP, and he takes it with a purpose."

That is evident ona recent spring morning at the Angels' facility in Tempe, Ariz. At 5'10",Kendrick's strike zone is small and he rarely reaches outside of it. He beginsby cracking line drives to right field, then to center, then a few to left. Outof 21 swings, he hit 16 liners, and on most he is squared up. Not once does heswing for the fences, nor does he send any balls near them. "Every time hehits a home run, it looks like an accident," says Willits, who playedalongside Kendrick at three of his four stops in the Angels' minor leaguesystem. "When he does, he's trying to stay on a ball and hit it the otherway, or smoke a line drive and he backspins it good and it carries out of theballpark."

Though Kendrickdoesn't need to provide power in a solid Angels' lineup—he hit only five homersin 338 at bats last year—or in spacious Angel Stadium, which caters more todoubles hitters, he is expected to increase his home run totals as time goesby. "Right now he's more of a 10 or 15 guy," says one AL scout,comparing him with Texas shortstop Michael Young. "But I can see himgetting up to 25 while still hitting .320."

Kendrick couldalso stand to improve his plate discipline. For such a good hitter, he drawsremarkably few walks—only nine last year, to go with 61 strikeouts. Sciosciaclaims not to be bothered by that, citing Kendrick's ability to get intohitting counts. (Last season he hit .418 when ahead in the count yet still hit.268 when behind.) Another weak spot is breaking balls. One AL scout says histeam's righthanders felt they could get Kendrick out with a slider last season,and Kendrick agrees. "I'd be too aggressive and chase those pitches lastyear," he says. "Just from then to now, I've made a huge jump in seeingthe breaking ball and knowing when it's a mistake pitch."

He's also visiblyproud of the improvements he has made in the field, having gone from abysmal tocompetent. At one point he tells a reporter, "Maybe in a couple of yearsyou'll be writing about my defense."

While this is anice sentiment, it's unlikely, no matter how proficient he may become. Afterall, no one ever wrote about Reggie Miller's ability to box out. Kendrick is apure hitter, always has been, a kid who idolizes Aaron because of his"great bat path," who still relishes hitting off a tee so he canpractice backspinning the ball, and who talks about hitting the way some mentalk about wine. "I've never seen him uncomfortable with a bat in hishands," says his sister Michelle. "It always just seemed like that waswhere he was supposed to be."

SI.COM FANTASY2008

Best in Show

HUSTON STREET overJonathan Papelbon? Only in SI's fantasy world, perhaps. For BaseballProspectus's top players at each AL position, plus an explanation for eachchoice, go to SI.com/fantasy.

AMERICANLEAGUE

CATCHER

1. VictorMartinez, Indians
2. Joe Mauer, Twins
3. Jorge Posada, Yankees

FIRST BASE

1. Carlos Peña,Rays
2. Nick Swisher, White Sox
3. Justin Morneau, Twins

SECOND BASE

1. Brian Roberts,Orioles
2. B.J. Upton, Rays
3. Ian Kinsler, Rangers

SHORTSTOP

1. Carlos Guillen,Tigers
2. Derek Jeter, Yankees
3. Michael Young, Rangers

THIRD BASE

1. Alex Rodriguez,Yankees
2. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
3. Chone Figgins, Angels

OUTFIELD

1. Grady Sizemore,Indians
2. Carl Crawford, Rays
3. Curtis Granderson, Tigers

DESIGNATEDHITTER

1. David Ortiz,Red Sox
2. Travis Hafner, Indians
3. Jim Thome, White Sox

STARTINGPITCHER

1. C.C. Sabathia,Indians
2. Scott Kazmir, Rays
3. Erik Bedard, Mariners

RELIEF PITCHER

1. Huston Street,A's
2. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox

Top Drawer

CHRIS YOUNG hit.237 last year, but in fantasy terms he's more valuable than Matt Holliday. Orso says Baseball Prospectus, which ranks its top players at each NL position atSI.com/fantasy.

NATIONALLEAGUE

CATCHER

1. Russell Martin,Dodgers
2. Brian McCann, Braves
3. Geovany Soto, Cubs

FIRST BASE

1. Ryan Howard,Phillies
2. Prince Fielder, Brewers
3. Albert Pujols, Cardinals

SECOND BASE

1. Chase Utley,Phillies
2. Brandon Phillips, Reds
3. Dan Uggla, Marlins

SHORTSTOP

1. Jose Reyes,Mets
2. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
3. Jimmy Rollins, Phillies

THIRD BASE

1. Ryan Braun,Brewers
2. David Wright, Mets
3. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals

OUTFIELD

1. AlfonsoSoriano, Cubs
2. Chris Young, Diamondbacks
3. Matt Holliday, Rockies
4. Adam Dunn, Reds
5. Corey Hart, Brewers

STARTINGPITCHER

1. Johan Santana,Mets
2. Jake Peavy, Padres
3. John Smoltz, Braves
4. Cole Hamels, Phillies
5. Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks

RELIEF PITCHER

1. Billy Wagner,Mets
2. Rafael Soriano, Braves
3. Matt Capps, Pirates

Buyer, BeAware

WHO WILL be thisyear's Carlos Peña? Or Ryan Braun? Using its PECOTA prediction model, whichevaluates a player's stats based on up to 100 comparable players in big leaguehistory, Baseball Prospectus presents its all-sleeper team, the best bargainsto be had at each position. (Stats are projections in the 10 major fantasycategories.)

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

Buyer, Beware

BASEBALLPROSPECTUS does not suggest that any of the players listed below are headed fora collapse. In fact, several are projected to have better stats than theircounterparts on the all-sleeper team. BP does anticipate that reputation andrecent performance will jack up the bidding for their services, and thereinlies the danger.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

PHOTO

Photograph by Peter Read Miller

 SWEETSPOT With his squared-up, line drive stroke, Kendrick, a scout says, may neverhit below .300.

PHOTO

MARK AVERY/AP

[See caption above]

PHOTO

BRAD MANGIN

STRAIGHT A'S A mediocre offense but solid rotation means more tight games—and more save chances—for Street, a strong finisher in '07.

PHOTO

ROBERT BECK

FREQUENT FLIER Young hit a mere .237 as a rookie, but his 32 homers and 27 steals more than make up for his paltry average.

PHOTO

GEORGE WIDMAN/AP

FRENCHY CONNECTION Francouer saw his home run total fall last season, but he still raked in the doubles (40) and RBIs (105).

PHOTO

DAMIAN STROHMEYER

OVERTAXED Carmona saw his wins increase by 18 a year ago, but the 24-year-old will pay for a similarly huge spike in his innings pitched.