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Arizona Diamondbacks All Time Top 50: #22, Ian Kennedy

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At his peak, Kennedy was almost as good a pitcher as we’ve seen in Arizona.

Chicago Cubs v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images
  • Avg ranking (high/low/most common): 24.24 (7/43/38)
  • Seasons: 2010-2013
  • Stats: 119 starts, 748.1 IP, 3.82 ERA, 106 ERA+, 8.5 bWAR
  • Best season: 2011 - 33 starts, 222.0 IP, 2.88 ERA, 137 ERA+, 3.8 bWAR

“I can’t rave more about him. He sets the bar for everyone.”
Diamondbacks pitching coach Charles Nagy

December 8, 2009 ended up a fairly pivotal day in our history. It saw us trade away future Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, sending him and Daniel Schlereth to the Tigers. Initial fan reaction here was unimpressed, 49% of SnakePitters rating the swap as “poor” or “awful”. But over the first couple of seasons, it looked possible Arizona might end up being the winner, as the team received Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy in return. Jackson gave us a no-hitter in June 2010, and the D-backs got the most WAR of the three teams involved that season. But it was the following year, where Kennedy had a momentous season, still among the very best ever by a Diamondback.

There wasn’t much trace of it initially. Ian’s first season with Arizona led only to a 9-10 record with a decent, but not overwhelming, 3.80 ERA (111 ERA+), and a league-high 16 wild pitches. Coming into the following spring, Kennedy was seen as only the team’s #3, behind Joe Saunders and Daniel Hudson. Four starts seemed to confirm this, Kennedy having a pedestrian 5.64 ERA. But on April 24, at 2:04 am, he was present when his wife gave birth to their first child. On April 25, Ian tossed a three-hit, no-walk, 10-K shutout of the Phillies (above): the 91 Game Score had only been surpassed by Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling for AZ. The game duration? 2:04, of course.

From that start through the end of the season, Kennedy would go 19-3 with a 2.57 ERA. Then GM Kevin Towers said, “You have to watch him a lot to really appreciate him. I knew he was good, but didn’t realize he was this good. He’s very deceptive. Very sneaky. He reminds you of a (Greg) Maddux or (Tom) Glavine. Just a smooth customer.” Kennedy missed out on an All-Star nod, but marched relentlessly on. His 20th win matched the post-partum shutout with a 91 Game Score, as he one-hit the Pirates for eight innings on Sep 19 (below). It might have been even more impressive in context, as the D-backs needed those zeroes, as they clung on for a 1-0 victory.

Kennedy started twice in the National League Division Series against the Brewers. In Game 1, he pitched well early holding Milwaukee to one run into the sixth inning, before a pair of big two-out hits, including a two-run homer off the bat of Prince Fielder. Both of those came with first-base open - the former with the pitcher on deck - and Kirk Gibson admitted after the game, pitching to Fielder proved a costly mistake. Ian did his job again in Game 5, allowing two runs through six innings. But in both games was hurt by a lack of run support, the D-backs managing only a total of three runs across them.

Ian Kennedy’s 21 regular season wins with the Diamondbacks in 2011 has only been surpassed by the holy trinity of Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Brandon Webb. The Big Unit is the only one to have had a season with 17+ more wins than losses (going 24-5 in 2002). Kennedy’s .840 win percentage is the best single-season figure in franchise history, by any pitcher with more than eight victories. Indeed, during the six seasons since Kennedy’s remarkable campaign, never mind 21, no Diamondback has passed the total of 17 wins recorded by Zack Greinke this year. With starting pitchers steadily going shorter, you have to wonder if we’ll ever see its like again.

Of course, pitcher wins are a notoriously unreliable metric, but with a 2.88 ERA over 222 innings of work, you’d be hard pushed to say IPK didn’t deserve those W’s. He had a K:BB of 198:55, and it was bad luck for his Cy Young hopes that Ian ran into a buzz-saw of worthy other candidates. That year, the league had eight qualifying pitchers with an ERA of 2.88 or better - the highest number seen in the NL since 1992. His fourth-place finish, behind Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee was no dishonor, and he did at least get a first-place vote, Kennedy being the last Diamondback to this point thus honored. He also won the MLB.com “Gibby” as BreakOut Player of the Year.

Unfortunately, Ian was not able to reproduce the success the next season. While he still won 15 games, his ERA was above four (ERA+ 101), largely a result of a sharply-elevated rate of home-runs allowed. There were occasional flashes of the ace we had seen in 2011: on June 5, he struck out 12 over six shutout inning against Colorado, or Sep 11, when he got a 1-0 win in Los Angeles, with 7.1 frames of four-hit ball. But he was inconsistent: Kennedy never managed more than three consecutive starts with a Game Score of 50+. He did get his only career triple, clearing the bases against the Rockies on July 23.

2013 was Kennedy’s final year with the team: he was dealt at the trade deadline to the San Diego Padres, for relievers Matt Stites and Joe Thatcher. But there was still time for Ian to play an integral role in one of the most (in)famous events in team history (below). On June 11, he started against the Dodgers. Events began after Kennedy hit Yasiel Puig up by his head in the sixth inning. The following frame, LA starter (and future Diamondback) Zack Greinke retaliated, drilling Miguel Montero in the back. In the bottom half, Kennedy then plunked Greinke, and all hell broke loose. Of the sanctions which followed, Ian got the toughest one, being suspended for 10 games.

After his trade, Kennedy finished out the season with San Diego, and also spent the next two years there. He then got his big pay-day, signing a five-year, $70 million contract with the Kansas City Royals, which runs through the end of 2021. Ian had a solid 2016 campaign for them, but his ERA ballooned to 5.38 in 2017, so we’ll see whether the rest of his deal becomes an albatross for the Royals. However, the final tie linking Kennedy to the state of Arizona was only severed very recently, with Ian selling his very nice home in Scottsdale for $1.7 million just before Christmas.