Editor's note: This is the second in Jonah Keri's series of Q&As with players and executives from the Cactus League. His first Q&A was with Arizona GM Josh Byrnes
Howie Kendrick is a batting champion waiting to happen. The Angels' second baseman hit better than .300 at every level of the minor leagues. In his first full season as an everyday major league player in 2007, he hit .322. But in a recent interview in the Angels' spring training clubhouse in Tempe, Ariz., he spoke at length about his desire to improve his game. Flashing an effusive smile throughout, Kendrick discussed lessons learned from veteran teammates, his hyperaggressive hitting style, and the Angels' organizational approach.
Jonah Keri: First-round draft choices probably have certain expectations for their career. You were drafted 294th overall. When you got drafted, coming from that background, what was your mentality? Did you think, "I'm definitely going to become a major leaguer?"
Howie Kendrick: What it came down to for me was just playing the game. I love playing baseball, and I was always good at it. Once you've been to the minor league level, which is a stepping-stone, I mean, everybody was good. Everybody was considered one of the best players in their area. For me it wasn't really about beating anyone else. I'm my worst critic -- I'm harder on myself than anybody else.
A lot of it is just grasping the game and learning a new level, learning new things. When that started happening, when I started learning new parts of the game, that's when I started having success. Hitting was the one thing I was always able to do. I became a smarter hitter, but I also became a better defender and just got a lot more knowledge of the game. The way the Angels teach baseball is an aggressive style, and they use the same level of play throughout the whole system. So as I caught on to the game, I learned that if I'm going to make mistakes, they should be aggressive mistakes. The thing was that I was able to hit, [and] that really carried me a lot. I'm letting the rest of my game just follow along.
Keri: Following prospects has become a big industry. You have writers talking about players when they're 18, 19 years old, even when they're in high school. You're hitting .360 in the minors every season, you're getting some ink do you hear about all of that when it happens?
Kendrick: I'm not going to say I didn't know, because I did. I mean, I think everyone does. And if they tell you they don't, they're probably lying [laughs]. I never really focused on the prospect status, though. My whole life nobody's really given me anything. I've had to work for everything. My work ethic and the way I go about the game helped me out a lot. When it comes to playing baseball, it's a team game. You have to bring your best to help out your teammates. Fortunately enough, I was able to bring my best, and with that came some success. I feel like if I can continue to be successful, that can help our team, and hopefully we can continue to keep winning.
Keri: You swing early in the count more than almost anyone in the game. Is it because you feel like you find more pitches to hit early in the count? Is that why you approach it that way?
Kendrick: I'm an aggressive-style hitter. Sometimes if I get a fastball early, I'm going to try to jump on it. I make a lot of contact. Sometimes I'll swing at bad pitches and make contact, put 'em in play. I want to keep that aggressive style and jump on the fastball early, get my pitch to hit. The sooner you get your pitch to hit, the better off you're going to be, if you can make solid contact consistently. If you can continue to do that, I think you can be successful.
Keri: It's a tough balance, because you do want to be aggressive, but at the same time in your first 600-plus at-bats of your career, you've got 18 walks. Is there a point of emphasis among the coaches and the manager where they say, "OK, be aggressive, but wait for your pitch, too"?
Kendrick: You know, right now I haven't heard anything. I do understand I need to be a bit more patient. The biggest thing is you have to get your pitch to hit. Sometimes you have to wait a bit to get that pitch instead of going after whatever looks good. So sometimes I get myself out, but other times I am on the aggressive side and I'm able to get a hit. I've never really walked a lot. That's something I'd definitely want to work on, but I'm not going up to the plate trying to walk. When I get a pitch to hit, I want to put an aggressive swing on it and try to do something with the pitch, rather than just take, take, take.
Sometimes you've got to take your walks, but most of the time they're going to give you a pitch to hit. I guess that comes with learning the game, especially at the major league level. It's a lot faster-paced style of game, guys are much smarter, and you always have to make adjustments. One of the things that comes with playing every day is learning to be more patient. For the most part, I'm just playing the game. I'm not thinking about how many walks I'm taking, or how often I'm swinging at the first pitch. I just play.
Los Angeles Angels
Keri: In the minors you ran a little bit more than you have so far in the majors. Is that something you're going to try to do a little bit more, take your chances on the bases, see if you can steal some more?
Kendrick: You know, if I get the green light, I'm going to try to steal.
Keri: Sounds like you're not getting the green light.
Kendrick: It's a team game, and I can only do what they allow me to do. So when I do have an opportunity to run, I'm going to try to take advantage of it. I want to get better jumps this year and just try to up my percentages more. With the chances I do get, I want to get that aggressive jump and try to steal that bag, because the more runners we have in scoring position, the better it is for our team. I would love to score a lot of runs this year; that would mean we're winning a lot of games. But that whole aspect of the game, going first to third, getting runners in scoring position, that's the style we play. It's something that I love. It's the type of player that I am, and I think I fit in well with our organization. They teach you that style at the minor league level, and then once you make it to the majors you already know what to do.
Keri: Last year you suffered two separate hand injuries. Are you fully healthy now?
Kendrick: Yeah, I'm all right.
Keri: Had that happened to you before? Did you make any adjustments in your stance, stand a little farther from the plate, maybe put your hands in a different place? Or do you feel like it was a fluke thing, so just keep everything the same?
Kendrick: Yeah, I haven't changed anything. Getting hit is part of the game. Sometimes guys might come after you with a pitch. Not to say that anyone did it on purpose. But it's still a competition. I'm going to be in the batter's box the same way I was before. If you throw at my head, I'm going to get back up. If you hit me, I might not necessarily charge the mound, but you better watch out, because I'm going to do something with the bat. That's the way I like to look at the game. If you want to come at me, let's go; we can compete all day. That's what I love about baseball is the competition. The level of the game and the play once you're up there, the excitement, being able to drive guys in, being able to get on base. It's a fun game. Getting hit on the hand, breaking my hand, didn't put any type of fear in me.
Keri: A lot of the game is about psychology, about the power of positive thinking. When you come up at the beginning of the season, are you thinking, "I'm definitely going to hit .300"?
Kendrick: You do set goals, but for the most part you just have to go out and play every day. I think that time will tell. At the end of the season it'll be a tale of the tape, I guess. You have to set little goals. Once you reach one step, you go in to the next one. Hitting .300 is something I would love to do every year, but who knows if that'll happen? Like I said, you just have to go out and compete, and if you're good enough and you get some balls to fall for you, then you're going to be right at that .300 mark or somewhere close to it.
Keri: You look around the clubhouse here, you've got Vladimir Guerrero sitting right over there, you've got Torii Hunter, Garret Anderson -- a lot of guys who've been in the game for a while and have been very successful. Is there anything in particular you try to take from these guys? I know Hunter is new to the team.
Kendrick: You know he's new, but it doesn't feel like he's new. He's an exciting guy. He comes in, loosens things up; he's funny. Guys that have been around, like you said, you can learn a lot just by watching them. The way they go about the game, but also just the way they approach at-bats. For me, Hunter's a right-handed hitter and he stays inside the ball, which is the same thing I do. I can watch him hit BP, I can watch him in the game and try to see his approach, because maybe guys might pitch him the same way they'll pitch to me. That's good for me because we have the same type of swing. He has a little more power, but still, the fundamentals of his swing are the same as mine.
Garret's a left-handed hitter, but I'll watch him too, try to pick up a few things. Vladi's a whole different kind of player.
Hitting .300 is something I would love to do every year, but who knows if that'll happen? ... You just have to go out and compete, and if you're good enough and you get some balls to fall for you, then you're going to be right at that .300 mark or somewhere close to it.
Keri: He is the kind of guy who swings outside the strike zone and makes contact, though, like you.
Kendrick: Yeah, but he hits the ball very hard. It's exciting to see a guy like Vladi play. I'll just be like, "I can't believe this guy just did that!" Some of the stuff he does is just exciting to watch. You'll say, "Did he just hit a home run on that pitch?"
Even [Chone] Figgins, I'll watch his at-bats, see the way he's aggressive on the basepaths, the way he sets himself up to score runs. That's important for our team. We get into scoring position, produce a lot of runs; that's what our whole game is about. I'd love to be one of those guys on base and have other guys drive me in, or drive in some men on my own. That's the kind of team we have, where everyone gets an opportunity to produce. Even getting [Jon] Garland on our pitching staff, that's another solid starter in our rotation. I think our team's going to be another good one this year. Hopefully by the end of the year, we'll be in the playoffs again.
Keri: Who's the toughest pitcher you've ever faced?
Kendrick: Chien-Ming Wang. It's that sinker ball. He's one of those guys that you definitely have to be a little more patient against. He can throw two different sinkers. He has one that has a little more sink to it, where he takes a little speed off. Then he throws you a hard one also. So you have to be patient and really try to elevate the ball. He's pretty much the only guy that I've had some problems with in the major leagues.
I know him too. He works out with me; he's a great guy. I always joke around with him about it and he knows. But this year we're looking to turn some things around, so we'll see! I told him, "Watch out, this year I'm going to step back in the box and swing." So he says, "Then I'll throw you an outside fastball." So it's like an ongoing joke. This year, hopefully we'll have some good competition.