Kendrick bound to benefit from Pujols' presence
Halos' No. 2 hitter likely to be challenged with slugger behind him
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As he digs in, taps home plate and raises his bat straight up into the air, Albert Pujols strikes fear into the greatest of pitchers from the batter's box.
A lot of times, though, his impact begins in the on-deck circle.
See, Pujols' talent not only impacts the numbers he puts up. His presence in the No. 3 spot can also raise the success rate of the man hitting in front of him.
And on his new team, that man will mostly be second baseman Howie Kendrick.
"If you hit in front of Albert, it's going to help a lot of players," veteran Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said. "It's a no-brainer, because you want to pitch to the guy in front of him because you don't want to face Albert. And a guy like Howie, who makes contact -- he was already a good hitter before Albert got here, and that makes him a much better hitter."
That extension the Angels signed Kendrick to 11 months before he hit free agency? It should only look smarter if he spends a full season hitting in front of their $240 million first baseman.
Coming off a year in which Kendrick batted .285 with a .338 on-base percentage and a career-high 18 homers while making his first All-Star team, the Angels gave him a four-year, $33.5 million contract in early January. And this spring, Kendrick has provided a glimpse of just how good he can be while nestled in the No. 2 spot, batting a team-high .415 (17-for-41) with three homers and 13 RBIs heading into Tuesday's game against the Giants.
"It can't hurt to have the presence of Pujols or [likely cleanup hitter] Kendrys [Morales] hitting behind you," Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "There are so many advantages, but I think this spring, he's been terrific regardless of who's hitting behind him on any given day."
Kendrick is a solid player in his own right. But it's the Angels' hope that the presence of a great No. 3 hitter behind him can have the same effect it did for Rich Aurilia, who had the greatest season of his career when he hit in front of Barry Bonds and finished with a .324 batting average and 37 homers in 2001.
Or Derek Jeter, who's a fantastic hitter but for years had the luxury of batting in front of great sluggers like Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams and Alex Rodriguez from 1998-2004.
Or Jon Jay, who exceeded expectations with a .297 batting average and .344 on-base percentage as mainly the No. 2 hitter in front of Pujols in St. Louis last season.
"It just depends," Jay said. "I think it was a benefit, but at the same time, I still had to hit the ball. It wasn't like they were just tossing it up there saying, 'Here, hit it.'"
"They might try to come at you a little more, but they're not going to try to give it up, either, in the same respect," Kendrick said. "It'd be fun. It'd be fun hitting in front of him if that happens, but at the same time, too, as long as I'm in the lineup, that's all I can ask for."
It's not that pitchers will take it easier on a No. 2 hitter who bats in front of a premier slugger.
But they will challenge them a whole lot more, because the last thing a pitcher wants to do is put runners on base for a guy like Pujols -- or Miguel Cabrera, or Ryan Braun, or Adrian Gonzalez, or Joey Votto.
"I don't know if the general consensus is correct about the No. 2 hitter getting all fastballs," Angels co-ace Dan Haren said. "It's not that easy. But with that said, for me, I really felt, in a lineup like we have or a lineup like Detroit, you really have to focus on the guys ahead of him and the guy who's behind him. Because Albert's going to get his hits, so it's a matter of keeping guys off base in front of him."
Sometimes, though, batting in front of a great slugger can be a bit of a detriment.
Just ask Ryan Ludwick, who posted a .407 on-base percentage in 34 games in the No. 2 spot in 2008 and a .389 on-base percentage in 47 games there in 2010, but actually found it easier to hit behind Pujols.
"I actually liked hitting behind him better because he was on base a lot," Ludwick said. "A lot of times when I hit in front of him, you'd think you would see a lot of fastballs, so you get really aggressive and they ended up taking advantage of your aggressiveness. Then I'd see first-pitch curveballs or changeups.
"I know a lot of guys loved hitting in front of Pujols. For Howie or anybody, I think, you go up with the mentality you'll get a lot of fastball counts. Hopefully you get them and you play them."
Kendrick, like Ludwick, is certainly an aggressive hitter. He drew only a combined 61 walks the last two seasons (Bobby Abreu walked 78 times just last season, and that was a down year), and 119 players ranked higher than him in walks-per-plate appearance in 2011.
This year, Kendrick can bet on seeing more strikes than ever.
Now it's a matter of what he does with them.
"It's always good to have good hitters behind you, but that doesn't mean they're just going to throw you down the middle," Pujols said. "They're still going to make [their] pitch, and you have to do your job and have a good at-bat."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. Reporters Mark Sheldon and Jenifer Langosch contributed. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.