"I respect the way he pitches. He knows what he's doing. He's a guy I wouldn't mind having. I don't know if I'd call him finesse. He's 88 to 90, and he attacks with his fastball, which is what you want to do. It's impressive. I'd still put him in as a fourth starter, but he'll be a steady guy, a Rick Reed type."
-- a scout discusses Ian Kennedy
In a season where our pitching staff has, almost without exception, disappointed to some degree, Ian Kennedy has been a very pleasant surprise. He has performed far better than expected, when he was traded to Arizona as part of the three-way deal with Detroit: at that point, he had one win in twelve starts with the Yankees, and a career ERA in the majors above six. But after seven outings for the Diamondbacks, he is the only starting pitcher on the club with an ERA below four (3.48), and it is looking increasingly like New York's loss is Arizona's gain.
So, we ask the time-old question: what's up with Ian Kennedy?
Ian Kennedy has been compared to Greg Maddux for almost his entire career, because both men are right-handers who don't have overpowering stuff, but instead use good command and control, along with movement and a baseball brain, to out-think batters when they can't necessarily out-pitch them. And like Maddux, Kennedy struggled during his early encounters with major-league hitter - though the future HoF made the big show a good deal earlier, being called up at age 20. But if you're going to be compared to anyone, we'll settle for the Mad Dog.
Kennedy went to USC, and at one point was talked about as a potential top ten draft pick. However, he had a bad couple of last months before the draft in 2006, with his velocity - and more importantly, his command - falling away, which had some speculating he would be picked in the forties.In the end, he went at #21 to the Yankees, and blazed through their system, reaching the majors barely a year after signing. A scouting report from December 2006 says, "Sometimes you cannot explain a pitcher's performance by the plus marks next to his pitches or the radar gun readings. Sometimes something is just there - and Kennedy has that something."
However, Kennedy had a bad 2008: he seemed to start nibbling and got hit hard as a result - New York was also unimpressed with his reaction to bad outings, something Kennedy now regrets. 2009 was, if anything worse: May saw Kennedy leave a game with numbness in his middle-finger, and he was diagnosed with an aneurysm - an abnormal bulging of a blood-vessel - in his armpit. He returned to the majors as a September call-up, but the Yankees seemed to have given up on him, and as the team reached a deal with Andy Pettitte, Ian was sent back to Arizona [he had appeared here in the AFL, posting a 4.25 ERA, with a K:BB ratio of 28:5 in 29.2 IP].
His spring 2010 numbers were impressive, five shutout innings against the Padres leading AJ Hinch to enthuse, "That was a great outing, one of the best outings - if not the best outing - in the spring by a starter." There were also reports at the time that he was developing a sinking fastball, but as we'll see, that doesn't seem to have come into play much - or at least, hasn't significantly impacted his numbers. Kennedy finished the Cactus League with a 2.88 ERA , securing his spot as the #3 in our Opening Day rotation - from there, his stock has probably only climbed.
It's a little harder to analyze Kennedy's improvement, than with previous entries in the WUW? series, because we have a great deal shorter major-league track record prior to this season. We're talking about less than sixty innings, spread over parts of three seasons since the native of Huntington Beach, CA made his debut against the Rays on September 1st, 2007. However, there are some obvious differences between the results he obtained in the Bronx, and those we are now seeing in Arizona.
Firstly, he has been walking a lot less people. In 44 innings, Kennedy has allowed only 11 bases on balls, a rate of 2.25 per nine IP. It's less than half that posted with New York - 5.58 - but is roughly in line with, though still somewhat better than, his minor-league numbers. His walk-rate at Triple-A, for instance, was 2.49 BB/9 IP, and his overall number across all levels was below three. This is likely connected to Kennedy's improved first-strike capability: he has thrown strike one 66% of the time, well above both his previous career number (59%) and NL average (58%), putting Ian in the top 10% of starters.
There are a couple of peripheral numbers which bear some investigation: both are extreme, so should regress to more normal levels, but I suspect they may well cancel each other out in terms of impact on his overall numbers. Kennedy's BABIP is .244, which is ranked sixth among 60 qualifying pitchers in the NL to date [Jon Garland and Barry Zito are among those above him], so I would expect that number to head towards league average, around .300, in due course. However, Kennedy's HR/FB rate is 11.4%, eighth-highest and significantly above NL average (7.5%). Some of that may be pitching in Chase, but I'd still expect him to give up fewer home-runs going forward.
Kennedy remains a pitcher who does give up more fly-balls than average, with about three fly-balls for every two ones hit on the ground [MLB average is around 5:4]. This may partly explain why his double-play rate is so low, though it's bordering on the freakish: he is the only pitcher in the majors to have thrown forty innings without getting a single DP. Normally. pitchers will expect to get a double-play about ten percent of the time the chance arises, but Kennedy. is just 2-for-74 in his career, with the last twin-killing all the way back in May 2008. He's 0-for-23 in the situation this year, so the Kennedy two-seamer that can generate groundballs appears a mythical beast thus far.
However, batters are swinging more and making less contact this season, especially on pitches out of the zone. There, the swing percentage has increased to 25.5%, compared to only 15.3% a couple of years ago, and the percentage of swinging strikes he has got this season is almost 9%, also sharply up on the 2008 figure. [As he only pitched one major-league inning in 2009, I am ignoring those numbers] The contact percentage when they swing at Kennedy's pitches is now below league average, both in (85.7% vs. 88.2%) and out (61.2% vs. 65.0%) of the strikezone.
Ian is also making a lot more use of his off-speed pitches. In 2008, his curveball and change-up comprised a total of 25.5% of his pitches; this season, that has jumped to 35.5%. And it's the change-up that has been really effective this year. Fangraphs also has a metric which measures the value of each pitch-type for a player: for Ian Kennedy, what it shows is that while most of his pitches are slightly-below league-average, his change-up is effective. Very effective. As in, the 4th-most productive change-up in the NL, behind only Tim Lincecum, Ubaldo Jimenez and Carlos Silva. Not bad for a guy with less then twenty major-league starts under his belt. [There's also a good piece on the change-ups in general and its status here. Hat-tip to 'Skins for that one]
There's two ways things can go. It's possible major-league hitters will work out how to spot and deal with Kennedy's change-up. Should that occur, we'll see how far guile takes him, because when all your pitches are merely average, you need to make up for it in smarts. The other possibility - the one I want, naturally - is that Kennedy continues to develop as a pitcher. This effective change-up was, apparently, a new addition to his arsenal; perhaps we can look forward to the sinker? Said Ian, "I talk to Webby a lot. He's usually in the training room, and I've asked him a lot of questions so far about pitching, trying to pick his brain on how he can throw that great of a two-seamer."
Let's hope the answers come to fruition in the desert, because few things in baseball taste sweeter than making the Yankees regret a trade.