SEATTLE -- The numbers say the opposite. If you subscribe to the defensive sabermetric Ultimate Zone Rating, you'll be led to believe that Howie Kendrick's value at second base has declined this season. But Angels first-base coach Alfredo Griffin, who has worked with Kendrick throughout the 29-year-old's Major League career, will tell you he's never been this good.
"He's gotten way better," said Griffin, a Major League shortstop from 1976-93. "He's done a great job. Howie didn't know he was going to be as good as he is right now when he started. For him to be the way he is right now -- he did a lot of work. He did a lot of work, that's what he did every day. He worked hard, over and over."
Ultimate Zone Rating, or UZR, measures fielding by comparing fielders on similarly hit balls to determine where a player ranks compared to an average defender at his position. A UZR of 15 is considered Gold Glove caliber, while 0 is average.
Kendrick's best UZR came in 2011, when his 14.4 mark ranked third among big league second baseman. His score last year was 4.9. So far this year, it's minus-1.2. But those around the team notice a spike in Kendrick's abilities defensively, particularly in his ability to consistently make the backhand play.
In Friday's 6-3 win, Kendrick made two critical defensive plays. In the sixth, he sprawled at first base to gather Albert Pujols' flip on a bunt just before Brendan Ryan hit the bag. Then, nursing a three-run lead in the seventh, Kendrick dove full extension to his left to knock down Dustin Ackley's two-out single, retrieved the ball in shallow right field, spun and made a perfect one-hop throw home to nail Justin Smoak on his attempt to score from second.
"To be the ground, get up, his back was turned to home plate, spin, find home plate and throw a one-hopper right on the money, you can't ask for more," Griffin said. "For me, that's the best play he's ever made."
Vargas returns to fond memories in Seattle
SEATTLE -- When the Mariners were still planning Safeco Field's reconfigurations last year, general manager Jack Zduriencik made sure to pick the brains of his best pitchers, to see how they felt about moving in the fences at a ballpark that had played so favorably to them.
Jason Vargas' response: "Give me a four-run lead and trust me."
"He's a guy who's very confident," Zduriencik said of the starting pitcher he traded to the Angels for designated hitter Kendrys Morales in December. "He really believes in himself. And I think when you watch the progression of how he developed into the kind of pitcher he is today -- and I knew him back when he was in Long Beach State -- confidence is a big thing for him. He really believes in what he does, he has a plan for who he is. He's smart."
A slow start to 2013 notwithstanding, Vargas has established himself as a reliable innings eater in the big leagues, coming to the Angels on the heels of a three-year span in which he racked up 611 innings, won 33 games and posted a 3.96 ERA.
On Sunday, he'll make his first start against the Mariners -- the organization that helped breed that patented confidence.
When Vargas arrived in Seattle on Dec. 11, 2008, as part of a three-team, 12-player trade, he didn't know where his career was headed. The former second-round Draft choice had been traded three times in four years, from the Marlins to the Mets to the Mariners. He had compiled a 5.81 ERA in 127 Major League innings from 2005-07, missed the entire '08 season due to hip surgery and was two months shy his 26th birthday.
"I think I was just trying to figure out if I was really going to still have a good chance at doing what I wanted to do, and that's being a successful big league pitcher," Vargas said. "Any time you get to the big leagues early, and then kind of struggle or have injuries or fade a little bit, it always questions your confidence and where you're at."
Vargas struggled a bit in '09, posting a 4.91 ERA in 23 games (14 starts), but he cracked the rotation heading into 2010 -- even though Cliff Lee had come over in a trade, Doug Fister was still on the team and Felix Hernandez was already on board.
"Making the team and being in the rotation out of the gate there really gave me a lot of confidence," said Vargas, who goes into his Sunday start with a 5.82 ERA but is coming off seven innings of three-run ball against the Rangers.
The philosophy has changed since Vargas last pitched here, even if that was only about seven months ago. An organization that once tried to win with pitching and defense now looks to outslug opponents with its shorter dimensions, which is why swapping Vargas for Morales -- two players who will be free agents this fall -- appealed to Zduriencik.
Vargas admits he was surprised by the trade.
"Especially since I didn't hear anything about that or anything leading up to that after the Trade Deadline," the 30-year-old lefty added. "I thought that I was going to be a part of it, but they had other plans. And baseball changes quick, man. To be able to be a part of this [with the Angels], you couldn't ask for a better situation. Things happen the way they happen."
Conger makes most of rare start
SEATTLE -- It isn't easy to get your first start in five days and go deep in your first plate appearance. But that's what backup catcher Hank Conger did in the second inning against Aaron Harang on Friday night, hitting a two-run shot to right-center field that marked his first big league homer since Sept. 16, 2011.
Conger, who appeared in 59 games with the Angels in 2011 but just seven in 2012, basically starts once a week, with Chris Iannetta doing the vast majority of the work behind the plate. It's a big adjustment for the 25-year-old switch-hitter, who's used to catching every day in the Minor Leagues.
But it's one he feels he's taking to quickly, mainly because he finally has a solidified role in the big leagues.
"When I first got called up, I didn't really know what my role was, so I didn't really know what to expect," said Conger, who has his grandparents in the stands for the four-game series in Seattle. "Now, I'm very comfortable with my role because I understand my role -- just play whenever they need me to. Chris is the starter, he's been doing a great job so far, and so I think for me, it's easier to understand my role and to be more comfortable in my role."
• Erick Aybar (bruised left heel) played seven innings of defense in his third extended spring training game in Arizona on Saturday. Manager Mike Scioscia said it'll be "at least another couple days" before he rejoins the Angels, but added that he's "really close."
• Tommy Hanson (bereavement list) will rejoin the Angels on Monday and is still expected to make that day's start. Monday is Hanson's next turn in the rotation, after missing Wednesday's start to deal with a death in the family.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.