Nationals

Nationals’ Strengths No. 6: Howie Kendrick’s clutch gene

Nationals

With the return of baseball in question amid the coronavirus outbreak, we’re ranking the Nationals’ 10 biggest strengths that we’re looking forward to watching once play finally does resume. Up next is Howie Kendrick’s propensity for coming through in the clutch.

What does it mean to be clutch?

Baseball-Reference defines situations that are “late and close” to be any plate appearances in the seventh inning or later during which the batter’s team is either tied, ahead by one or is behind but has the tying run at least in the on-deck circle.

Howie Kendrick hit .356 in late and close situations last season with a .729 slugging percentage that ranked second in the majors behind only NL MVP runner-up Christian Yelich.

But perhaps that’s not broad enough. Maybe clutch means coming through in big games against opponents in the playoff race, where the stakes are higher and wins carry more weight.

Kendrick hit .374 against teams with winning records last season, posting a 1.029 OPS that trailed only Yelich and the man who beat him out for NL MVP, Cody Bellinger.

Or maybe clutch performances are reserved for the playoffs. Legends write their stories in October, when everyone’s season is on the line and championship glory lies just a few wins ahead.

Not only did Kendrick win NLCS MVP honors after hitting .333 with five hits and four RBIs in the series, but he also delivered the two biggest hits in Nationals history last postseason: the go-ahead grand slam in extra innings of NLDS Game 5 against the Dodgers and the go-ahead home run off the foul pole in Game 7 of the World Series in Houston.

 

However you define clutch, Kendrick stands out.

“I kind of expect it out of him because he’s been so good, because he’s a professional,” Nationals shortstop Trea Turner told The Washington Post in June. “Every time he goes up there, he gives us a good at-bat, seems to put the barrel on the ball. This year—and even last year—he’s been raking. He’s been hot the whole time.”

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The 36-year-old hit machine was one of the best-kept secrets in baseball last season. After rupturing his Achilles in 2018, Kendrick was limited to 121 games in order to help him stay healthy. That kept him off most MLB leaderboards, which was too bad for Kendrick—if the qualified threshold was lowered to 350 plate appearances, he would’ve won the batting title (.344) and ranked sixth in OPS (.966).

But Kendrick truly stood out for his clutch gene, making him the perfect candidate to hit fifth behind Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto in the playoffs. The Nationals’ 3-4-5 spots in the lineup became a gauntlet for opposing pitchers to get through—and few were able to do it. Only six times all postseason did the trio account for all three outs in an inning. Combined, they hit .296/.373/.529 with 10 home runs and 41 RBIs in the playoffs.

The Nationals re-signed Kendrick this offseason on a one-year deal with a mutual option for 2021. At 36 years old, he’s far from an everyday player anymore. But Washington is still paying him $6.25 million to play in D.C. this season, which is as good an indication as any that the club still sees value in him beyond the veteran leadership he brings to the clubhouse.

“I’m not an everyday guy anymore, and I’m not afraid to say that,” Kendrick said to the Post in March. “I’m not afraid to tell anybody that. If I play every day, I’ll break down.”

Instead, he’s a player the Nationals will lean on in moments when it counts—late and close situations, tough opponents and, if they get there, the playoffs.

Clutch is an ambiguous word, and tough to define. Perhaps we need a new synonym for it. How about Kendrick?

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