The problem with expectations is that they have a tendency of not working out. 2012 was supposed to be the glory year for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and although anything could still happen, there are definitely fans in full meltdown mode. It's easy to see their perspective, what with so many D-backs players struggling to reach the lofty expectations placed upon them.
For the starting rotation, that starts with Ian Kennedy. A 20 game winner last year, and overall dominating, he was expected to anchor what people assumed would be a strength in pitching. Instead, he's 3-4 with a 4.47 ERA. It's begs this article's eponymous question: What's wrong with Ian Kennedy?
To properly look at Kennedy's performance so far, I think we need to use a top-down approach. We'll start by looking at his overall season numbers, and slowly work further down to individual performances to see if there are any causes for concern. And to understand this year, we need to understand what we're comparing it against. In Kennedy's case we should compare to both his 2011 season, which is what we want, and his career numbers, which probably provide a better baseline of expectation.
His season line currently sits at 56.1 IP, 28 ER, 45 K, 14 walks. His ratio stats sit at 7.19 K/9, .318 BABIP, 3.21 K/BB. His ERA is 4.47, but his FIP is 3.84.
2012 vs. 2011:
Let's compare these to last year's stellar season. Looking at the ratio stats, we don't see a very good picture of the pitcher. Kennedy's K/9 has gone down from 8.03 last year, and his K/BB also declined from 3.60. The biggest culprit here is the increase in walks, which suggests a lack of control or consistency from Ian this year. Last year saw a BABIP of .270, so if last year he was a bit lucky in limiting balls in play, this year he's making up for that being unlucky with too many balls in play.
In 2011, Kennedy had an ERA of 2.88 and a FIP of 3.22. Right away this suggests that one change between this year and last is that the fielding independent pitching of Kennedy hasn't been as good. At the same time, his ERA is considerably higher. Part of this is ballooned from some bad starts, and should go down as the season goes down, but this suggests that the defense behind in 2012 has been worse than in 2011. We'll explore this more further down the page.
2012 vs. Career:
If 2011 was an exceptionally good year for Kennedy, then we should compare his numbers to the careers marks to get a more tempered benchmark. In six years in the majors, he has had an ERA of 3.67, K/9 of 7.3, .277 BABIP, and K/BB of 2.58. His career FIP has been 3.85.
As you can see, some of his 2012 numbers have been remarkably close to his career numbers. His K/9 and FIP are nearly dead-on with the career numbers. His K/BB is different, part a large part of this has been cutting down on the walks that were part of his early starts. The starkest difference is in BABIP, with a 40 point difference between the two figures. It's one thing to have a drastically different number over a month or even a season, but this provides further indications that it's not completely Kennedy who has been struggling this year.
If we assume that there isn't something wrong with Kennedy, it's easy to see how these numbers align with that theory. Kennedy, and to a lesser extent his battery-mate Miguel Montero, would have the greatest control over K/9, BB/9, and K/BB ratios. Kennedy can control what kind of pitches he utilizes, where they will be located, and the sequence in which they appear. He can't control whether a grounder to third will be booted, or if the throw across the diamond to first will be airmailed into the stands.
Part of the difference in BABIP for 2012 against his career number can be explained by the hand-waving that is luck. With only 9 starts in the books, it's reasonable to assume that the number will go down, and that many of his numbers might normalize.
I think there's some evidence that the defense behind him has been less than optimal, resulting in more baserunners and runs for the opposing team. The first part of the puzzle is the gulf between his ERA and FIP. FIP attempts to measure, like its name, "fielding independent pitching." The goal is see for which runs a pitcher is responsible, and for which he's co-responsible. The defense behind him is at least co-responsible for over half more run per 9 than his FIP in 2012. Last year the defense actually managed to help take away runs.
Of course, the other side of the better ERA than FIP angle is that a pitcher is expected to regress back away from this arrangement. It seems like this is happening this year with a vengeance.
The other counter-argument to the defense being the problem is that I don't see a consistent ERA above FIP pattern with the other starters. Some other Diamondbacks have ERAs much higher, some lower. It would seem to follow that if defense was the major factor in the pitching woes the team has seen this year, it would be seen across the board. Or, barring a consistent defensive handicap, at least some sort of consistency for ground ball versus fly ball pitchers. There doesn't seem to be consistency, which makes it difficult to truly accept the defense as the problem. It might be one part of the problem, but it is not the sole problem.
Location, Location, Location
We started with very large, macro level stats, and are now moving down to a much more granular level. Using PitchFX, we can look to see if the actual movement and velocity of Ian Kennedy's pitches have changed significantly this season. You can find more information at Brooks Baseball, but I've created a chart with some salient information:
Let's start with the actual outcomes, which would be the farthest column on the right. Nearly every pitch type has been thrown for a greater rate of strikes than Kennedy has done over his career. The only one that's down is his fourseam fastball, and it's only slightly down. He's relying on his fastball more than he normally does, at the expense of his curveball, but the curve and the slider seem to be two pitches he couldn't throw for strikes consistently. It would make sense to limit poorly controlled pitches, and instead use them only when necessary. He uses his changeup more over the career numbers, and for wildly better results.
Velocity isn't everything for a pitcher, but you still need some zip on the fastball. Kennedy's fourseam is slightly slower this year, but it such a slight deviation that it's unlikely to cause a drastic change in outcomes. His offspeed pitches have all picked up a little velocity, though, suggesting that the gap between the pitches isn't as drastic, which makes it easier for a hitter to time their swing. But again, the change is so minuscule that it is hard to believe it would have an outsized effect on Kennedy's season.
Movement, in some ways, is more important to a pitcher because it makes even a meatball pitch difficult to track and hit. A fastball that is nearly straight won't be effective even if it's going in the upper 90's, because major league hitters are too good at fastball hitting. You might think that perhaps Kennedy hasn't been able to get good movement out of his pitches this year, but nope, that's not right either. Most of his 2012 pitches have been in line, or even exceeding, in both horizontal and vertical movement over his career numbers.
It might then be tempting to think that Kennedy's struggles is just plain old inconsistency.
So far through 9 starts Kennedy has been at best inconsistent, just not in the way you think. In the 3 wins he's had a line of 3.40 K/BB, opposing BA of .299, and a BABIP of .367. In 4 losses he's had a line of 3 K/BB, opposing BA of .261, and a BABIP of .268. His strikeout to walk ratio is slightly worse in losses, but not significantly, and he's seemingly done a better job in both pitching and not being exceptionally unlucky or lucky.
There is one crucial difference between his wins and losses, however, and it's home runs. In those 3 wins (and if you include the 2 no decisions), Kennedy has only given up 2 home runs. In 4 losses he's given up 5 home runs.
Conclusion: So what gives?
I think we can make a slight conclusion that the defense has negatively affected Kennedy so far, but a far more convincing answer is bad luck and a tendency to give up home runs. The home runs are troubling because if you negate those then he seems to pitch well in many other ways on those days. Without having insider knowledge, I would hypothesize that perhaps opposing batters have improved their "book" on him, and have been able to pounce on the few mistakes he makes in a game.
We should see him improve over the season, but I think it would be a bit of a stretch to expect him to suddenly turn back into what he was in 2011. The truth is that many of the peripherals suggest he hasn't changed much, and if anything, has gotten better. He might need to change his approach to keep ahead of hitters (pure speculation on my part), but otherwise we just need to wait. And that's always the hardest part.