Pirate Catcher of the Decade: Jason Kendall

Absolute zero is the coldest temperature theoretically possible. Molecular movement slows to the point of near stoppage, preventing energy transfer from one molecule to another, leaving all energy at the lowest point possible. The snag is that this temperature cannot possibly be reached by any means because no matter how insulated the system, no matter how remote the nebula, nothing can be completely detached from the entropy of the universe. This is oddly comforting and is also the reason that even the Pittsburgh Pirates can have an all-decade team, even without a winning season.* You can find the other entries in this series here.

Catcher- Jason Kendall (2000-2004)

It’s true that with the turn of the century, Jason Kendall suffered a debilitating thumb injury that sapped all of his power and turned him into a slap hitter. That maybe if he’d agreed to a move to second base back in 2001, that he’d still be hitting .300/.370/.420, that he wouldn’t be washed up at 35, maybe even that he’d have an outside shot at 3,000 hits and the Hall of Fame. None of those things happened, though, because Jason Kendall refused to ever think of himself as anything but a catcher and while it’s stubborn and foolish and maybe even .

Kendall’s best years were mostly past him by the time the calendar turned from 1999 to 2000, but you would’ve never known it during the 2000 season. After his horrific ankle injury on July 4, 1999 both threatened to destroy his career and altered the path of the Pirates’ franchise forever, he bounced back and hit .320/.412/.470 with 14 homers (a career high), 33 doubles, and 22 stolen bases. It’s easy to forget just how good Kendall was in the early part of his career. 2000 was his third straight season (counting the lost season of 1999, which was on pace to be a career year for Kendall after 78 games), 2000 was his third straight year of an OPS+ of 124 or better with a .470+ slugging percentage.

Given his age at the time (26) it seemed like the best was still to come for Kendall. Unfortunately in 2001, he suffered a severe injury to his left thumb from catching, and his production at the plate took a huge blow. Despite the injury, he caught in 133 games and played an additional 27 in the outfield, refusing to go on the disabled list or have the ligament surgery his thumb badly needed. (In hindsight, Lloyd McClendon’s biggest failings as manager may have been the way he handled Kendall’s thumb injury and Aramis Ramirez’s ankle injury.) After a terrible year, Kendall had the thumb surgery and rebounded a bit in 2002 (though he still only hit .283/.350/.356).

In 2003, he reinvented himself as a slap hitter, but found success as a leadoff guy, hitting over .300 with a .399 OBP in each of his last two years in a Pirate uniform despite losing almost all of his home run power to the thumb injury. Kendall was traded after the 2004 season to Oakland, and in leaving Pittsburgh his career as a productive hitter died as well, only topping an OPS+ of 80 one more time in his career.

Now it’s easy to think of Kendall as the awful hitter that floats from team to team to provide veteranosity, some sort of vague wisdom to young pitchers, and hilarious threats to mustachioed pitching coaches, but when he was a Pirate he was really one of the best catchers in baseball and his quick and precipitous decline as a hitter should serve as a reminder to everyone what can happen when you leave great hitters behind the plate. (I’m staring directly northwest at Ron Gardenhire right now).

Honorable mention: With any ability at all to stay healthy, Ryan Doumit could’ve topped Kendall on this list because his 2008 season was really only topped by Kendall’s 2000 year. The guy can hit a ton and he’s made a lot of strides behind the plate, but he just doesn’t play enough to top out Kendall, even though Kendall was traded by the time the decade was half over.

Dishonorable mention: Joggin’ Ronny Paulino for the emptiest .310 rookie batting average in recent memory and Jim Tracy’s weird obsession with pretending like he was an awesome catcher. Humberto Cota for avoiding having his number retired while he was wearing it only by being designated for assignment days before the ceremony to retire Paul Waner’s #11.

*Yes, I fully realize that the decade technically runs from 2001-2010, not 2000-2009. But everyone else is doing it and I don’t care.

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.