Jeren Kendall’s Tools Play From Batters Box To Outfield
[caption id="attachment_202598" align="alignnone" width="900"] Center fielder Jeren Kendall flashes both power and speed, hitting 13 homers with 15 stolen bases (Photo by Carl Kline)[/caption] Jeren Kendall is different. Not different in any sort of odd or peculiar way, and maybe not different in any way that’s immediately noticeable. But he is different. He’s a good-looking 21-year-old, wiry strong at 6 feet, 190 pounds, with curly brown hair, a pearly white smile and striking light-blue eyes. He’s clean-shaven—except for the mustache he’s got tattooed on his left middle finger, which he playfully stretches across his upper lip from time to time. That’s one quirk. Here’s another: Much like the late artist Prince, Kendall has become synonymous with a symbol. A Panda emoji. He’s used it in all of his Instagram captions for a year now. His intrasquad team in fall practice was named Team Panda. He’s not sure where the panda came from. Seriously. He has no explanation for it. “I’ve just been a huge fan,” he said, laughing. “I don’t really know why I do it.” Kendall has long been a trendsetter, a trailblazer. Stylish and bold. When he was a senior at Holmen (Wis.) High, he entered the school’s talent show—and won. His “talent” was catching marshmallows with his mouth, thrown by his younger brother, Justin, from 10 rows deep in the auditorium seats. It was a showstopper.
Supremely confident but equally personable, intensely competitive but also bright-eyed and lighthearted, Kendall is the latest in a long line of stars to emerge from the Vanderbilt star factory. But this star is uniquely Jeren. “I just love him,” Vandy coach Tim Corbin said. “I think he’s a wonderful kid. Personality is plus. He’s good looking. He’s very easy to be with. Low, low maintenance. He’s comfortable with people. He’s comfortable with himself . . . I just wish he was here longer.” Where Kendall truly sets himself apart is on a baseball field. There, the differences are far more apparent. Kendall is a unique talent, a potent combination of power and speed in center field. Through 183 at-bats this spring, the junior leadoff hitter is batting .301/.384/.579 with a team-leading 13 home runs and 15 stolen bases in 19 attempts, and those numbers are very much in line with what Kendall has done throughout his career. He made a sizable impact even as a freshman, on a team loaded with draft talent like Dansby Swanson, Carson Fulmer and Bryan Reynolds. Kendall famously hit a walk-off home run into the Cal State Fullerton bullpen in the College World Series, a couple of days before the Commodores advanced to the CWS finals for the second straight year. That home run ball is enshrined in a trophy case in Kendall’s Wisconsin home, along with a picture of his swing—and of the grounds crew member who corralled the ball for him. “He’s an amazing player,” said junior Will Toffey, one of Kendall’s best friends and an equally impactful Vandy freshman in 2015. “He’s fun to watch. He’s got bat speed like no other, and he can run like hell. He’s an energy guy. When he’s on, he can take over a game.” There’s an ease to Kendall’s game; if he’s going right, he’s the most dynamic player on the field. But he’s not always on. There’s a divisiveness to his game, too. And that’s part of his uniqueness. Depending on which MLB team you talk to or which area scout or scouting director, you’ll get a different take on where Kendall might get drafted this June—from one of the first handful of picks to a little bit further down. As a player, Kendall is somewhat of an enigma. But Kendall is aware of that. He know there’s an inherent rawness that comes from playing baseball in a cold-weather state like Wisconsin. “I still have a lot to learn,” Kendall said. “I’ve been (at Vanderbilt) for three years, and I’ve learned a lot about baseball and a lot about life, but I’m not near my peak at all. “I still have a lot to learn, and that’s kind of the exciting part of it—I’m not there yet.” But he has a plan to get there. And a teacher. And a road map. The Panda is on his way. Like Father, Like Son Jeremey Kendall kept a picture of his newborn son in his room in Reading, Pa. He looked at it every day. The callup to Double-A is supposed to be a joyous occasion—and certainly Jeremey was happy when he picked up the phone—but the call came in April of 1996, just two months after he and wife Bridget brought their first of two sons, Jeren, into the world. Jeremey didn’t want to leave them. Jeren was, in a sense, born into baseball. At the time, the Kendalls lived in Clearwater, Fla., moving there from Wisconsin because Jeremey was a player in the Phillies organization and Clearwater is the home of their Florida State League affiliate. Jeremey, just like Jeren, was a center fielder and a leadoff hitter, drafted out of Winona State (a Division II school in Minnesota) in the 29th round in 1992. He spent five years in the Phillies system, but that year, ‘96, would be his last. Jeremey struggled at Double-A, in part because of a broken wrist he suffered the year before and because of the sheer mental toll of playing baseball more than 1,000 miles away from his son. In the spring of ‘97, the Phillies released him. “I guess they had seen enough,” Jeremey said. The new father moved his family back home to Wisconsin, and Jeremey pivoted his attention from his pro career toward his son. Like his father, Jeren gravitated toward baseball at a young age; every grainy home movie shows him with a ball or bat in his hands. Jeremey coached him, teaching him the nuances of playing center field and showing him all of the hitting techniques he had picked up during his brief time in pro ball. He could always tell Jeren had natural athletic ability. For Jeremey, watching Jeren now is like watching himself 21 years ago. “Almost a mirror,” Jeremey said. “And I say almost a mirror because he’s better. I made some great catches in my career, but this kid is starting to make some triples disappear. He’s just making some stuff look real easy . . . Arm strength—comparable. His accuracy is better than mine. “When he learns how to make that ball carry a little bit better, he’ll throw more people out. But yes, as far as left, right, over the head, he’s better than what I was.” Jeren always showed the athletic aptitude to pick up any sport or activity he participated in and the competitiveness to thrive in it—from marshmallow-catching with his mouth to ice hockey. He played hockey for some time throughout his youth and still plays on occasion with Toffey in the offseason. His younger brother, Justin, plays in the Tier 2 North American Hockey League. “I always like to tell people I played hockey,” Jeren said, laughing. “It makes me sound tough. So that’s always nice.” From a baseball standpoint, Kendall was at a disadvantage playing in Wisconsin, where the seasons are shorter and scouting eyes are fewer than in the Southeast or Southern California. But he did have the advantage of a father who played professionally and worked out with him regularly up until the time he left for Vanderbilt. Jeremey still tries to help his son from afar, watching all of his games on TV—if not in person—and texting Jeren pictures of his swing mechanics. But more so now, Jeremey offers mental advice. “At this point, I try to help him with the ebbs and flows of the game,” Jeremey said. “I played five years and 500 at-bats a year, so I understand that roller coaster ride, so I try to help him with the thought processes and trying to stay confident and all the things that go along with that journey. “I told him numerous times I think my biggest regret is I wish I would’ve enjoyed the game more and wasn’t so hard on myself, so I try to instill in him not to be too hard on himself and try to enjoy the game more." Road to the Show Sitting in the lobby of the Vanderbilt team hotel during an early April series at South Carolina, Jeren Kendall flexes his right arm. “It’s more on the yoked side right now,” he says, with a charismatic grin. He’s being somewhat facetious. He’s being Jeren. “I think the moment this thing,” he says, gesturing toward his sleeve, “gets stuck on my biceps and I can’t get my sleeve around my bicep, I think is when that day will come.” Jeren is talking about the very subtle difference between being “yoked” and being “jacked.” His dad, Jeremey, is jacked. Muscular. The classic definition. Jeren is not yet jacked. He’s yoked. “After I take a shower and relax, it kind of goes down a little bit,” he explains. “It’s more like the after-pump. You always feel a little bit bigger after a workout. I think jacked, it’s just more of a consistent basis.” That’s just one of the things Kendall’s working on—getting jacked. The night before, Jeren, Toffey and fellow teammate J.J. Bleday watched a documentary on former Cardinals pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel and his battle with the yips. “The amount of years he had to stay mentally focused, I told Toffey: ‘I don’t know how this guy did not quit,’” Kendall says. “That’s hard to go through. It really defines a player how well he can play when he’s doing bad and how well he can stay in it.” Kendall has never had an experience quite as extreme as Ankiel’s, but he can relate. “The first couple of months of this year have been kind of tough for me,” he says. Pitchers were attacking him differently, throwing him more offspeed pitches, giving him few pitches in the zone, and it took him some time to adjust. He struck out too often, and he knows it (52 in 183 at-bats this spring; the biggest knock scouts have on him). But he says he’s more relaxed now than he was at the start of spring; he’s getting more and more of a knack for baseball’s cat-and-mouse game. He’s putting the ball in play more often. “When people ask me how I separate myself from other people, it’s not necessarily skills,” Kendall said. “I think a lot of guys in this upcoming draft and past drafts, they’re all very similar players. They can all hit, they can all run or throw. It’s just who can do it at a more consistent basis. That’s the biggest part of it. That’s what I need to learn next. I think I’ve learned how to hit. I know how to make adjustments now, but it’s just being more consistent at a high level.” Evaluators would agree, as most scouts who have seen Kendall have said he’ll likely need to adjust his approach at the plate even further at the next level. The team that drafts Kendall will draft him for its believe in his explosive raw tools and his aptitude—both of which his head coach readily vouches for. “Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, we’re not going to see his best game,” Corbin said. “But that’s just natural. I just think that this young man is going to play for a while because his game is just going to keep escalating. He’s a learner. He’s internal. He wants to be good. He’s got a very high care level for what he does. He handles it internally, every part of his game. “He brings a toolkit of wonderful abilities to the ballpark every time he comes and he’s fun to watch because you’re going to see something exciting, typically—the ball off his bat, how he runs and how he gracefully moves after a ball.” Behind Kendall’s stylish persona, behind his future-star confidence, behind his ever-present panda emoji, is fierce ambition. His Twitter bio reads: “I don’t wanna play professional baseball. I wanna play in the big leagues.” All eyes are toward that destination, and he could very well get there sooner than later. As he embarks on his road to the show, he’s even created his own character in the newest MLB: The Show video game and is taking him through the game’s career mode. Coincidentally, the digital Jeren Kendall was drafted by the Phillies—his father’s old organization. He’s a center fielder, playing at Double-A Reading. “He’s very good. He’s only halfway through his first season, and he’s batting about .600,” said Jeren, smiling, before adding, “I have it on beginner. “I gotta make it to the show, and then I’ll turn up the difficulty.” Even then, he’ll still probably make it look easy.