A's sold on Kendall's leadership skills

Jason Kendall was an impressive hitter in his nine National League seasons.

As a Pittsburgh Pirate from 1996 to 2004, he hit .306. One year, he hit 14 home runs. Another year, he had 75 RBI. Three years ago, he hit .325. He was on three All-Star teams.

But the fact is, Kendall is a catcher. First and foremost. That he hasn't adjusted easily to American League batter's boxes is a concern for the A's, but more important is how he performs defensively. His duties behind the plate outweigh what he has to offer on offense, and the A's are big fans of how he handles pitchers.

"Mainly, he puts every pitcher in a comfort zone," A's pitching coach Curt Young said.

Kendall is the first to admit he had a subpar offensive year in 2005, when he hit .271 (second-lowest mark in his career) without a home run in 601 at-bats. The last player with more at-bats to go homerless in a season was Seattle's Harold Reynolds in 1989.

His .321 slugging percentage was the lowest in the majors by 20 points. His last home run was July 27, 2004, off Atlanta's Paul Byrd. Through 13 games of 2006, his homerless streak has reached 855 at-bats.

"I wasn't happy with my year last year," Kendall said. "But if you're ever satisfied, it's time to get out of the game. I'm looking to turn it around. I haven't changed my approach at the plate. It's the same approach for me. The bottom line is, I just want to win."

The A's won 88 games in 2005, which was supposed to be a transition year after the trades of Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder and the loss of Jermaine Dye, but the A's rallied behind a young pitching staff that produced the AL's fourth-lowest ERA and limited batters to a .241 average, lowest in the majors.

Kendall's presence behind the plate was a big help.

"I think he should get a lot of credit for our young pitching staff's development last year," A's manager Ken Macha said. "That's been the major impact he's had. He does an excellent job in preparation."

Closer Huston Street was the AL's top rookie, and fellow rookie Joe Blanton won 12 games and produced a 2.53 ERA after May. Dan Haren, acquired from St. Louis in the Mulder trade, won 14 games in his first full season. Rich Harden, an ace in the making, battled injuries but posted the AL's second-lowest ERA (2.53) among pitchers with at least 100 innings. Kirk Saarloos was a valuable No. 5 starter.

The old man of the rotation was Barry Zito, all of 27.

It was Kendall's first year in Oakland. If he didn't make a successful adjustment offensively, he did defensively -- his poor success rate of throwing out would-be base stealers notwithstanding. Pitchers trust him and enjoy throwing to him.

"He trusts my stuff," Blanton said. "He taught me a lot. He calls the pitch that you expect to throw."

Likewise, Kendall takes pride in his relationship with pitchers.

"Nothing is more satisfying than being on the same page with a pitcher," he said. "My first priority, every catcher's main priority, is getting the starter through as many innings as possible. The thing about our pitchers, they're not 'just happy to be here.' I've seen pitchers 'just happy to be here' who didn't put in the work. These guys want to learn, and they're going to get better."

Kendall, 31, is the son of Fred Kendall, a big league catcher for 12 seasons, mostly with the Padres. The younger Kendall calls his dad the "best catching coach in the world." Fred played at a time (1969-80) when catchers were more defense-oriented, with a few exceptions, notably Johnny Bench.

A's broadcaster Ray Fosse, a catcher in that era himself, suggested Jason Kendall's offensive numbers shouldn't overshadow his contributions as a receiver.

"He knew everybody in the National League for nine years, and all of a sudden he came to the American League and had to learn a new pitching staff," Fosse said. "He had a bunch of young pitchers who he had to guide along, and they all had great years. He did not intentionally disregard his offense. But I know for a fact, if I was coming up to hit, sometimes I'd be focusing on who's up for the other team the next inning. Consequently, I wasn't concentrating 100 percent on the at-bat but getting the next three guys out to win the game.

"Jason's going to contribute [offensively], but the offensive focus should be on other positions. Jason is so good at handling pitchers and blocking balls. He's meant a lot to these pitchers. Look at Joe Blanton, who never shakes off Jason.

"What Jason does is eliminate the thinking for pitchers. There's that much trust."

Kendall doesn't want too much credit.

"I'm suggesting," he said. "They're the ones with the ball in their hands."

Kendall hopes for better offensive numbers in 2006. He seemed to feel comfortable in September, hitting .324, and perhaps it'll help that Gerald Perry is the new A's batting coach. Perry was Kendall's batting coach in Pittsburgh.

John Shea is the national baseball writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.