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Ian Kennedy Settling Into the National League

In the past few days I’ve discussed two components of the Yankees-Tigers-Diamondbacks trade over the winter. Both Austin Jackson and Edwin Jackson present interesting cases. The former has gotten off to a hot start despite some concerning peripherals, and the other has gotten hit around a bit in two of his five starts. Arizona has actually seen better from another pitcher their received, 25-year-old right-hander Ian Kennedy.

In March I wondered about Kennedy’s potential in the NL. He flopped during his limited exposure with the Yankees, but a move out of the AL East might have been the boost Kennedy needed to get going. He is, after all, a former first-round draft pick who so consummately dominated the minors during his first professional season that he essentially forced the Yankees to call him up (well, that and Mike Mussina‘s breakdown). An impressive September earned him a rotation spot in 2008, but that ended in disaster.

In Arizona it appears things are starting to come together. Throughout the minors Kennedy displayed excellent strikeout skills, 9.9 per nine innings, or 28 percent of the batters he faced, while walking just 2.8 per nine. During his Yankees tenure he struggled in both areas, but with the Diamondbacks he has excelled. In 30.1 innings he has struck out 27, 8.01 per nine, or 21.6 percent of all batters faced. He has also kept his walk rate low, just 2.37 per nine. This success hasn’t exactly shown up in the results yet — he owns a 4.45 ERA — but there are some signs that could change.

Kennedy’s biggest problem this year has been the home run. He has allowed 2.08 per nine, or one every 15.6 batters faced. The home runs have been concentrated, with the Dodgers hitting three and the Phillies two, each in a single game. That type of home run rate stems from his ridiculously high HR/FB percentage. Kennedy will not see 17.9 percent of his fly balls leave the park this year, so his home run rate should drop as the season progresses. This shows up in his xFIP, 4.07.

In terms of batted balls, a pitcher like Kennedy, who doesn’t blow away hitters, could do more to induce ground balls. In the minors he induced about 39.7 percent grounders, which is just a tick above where he currently sits, 37.9 percent. He has mixed in a two-seamer more frequently this year, so perhaps as he throws that more he’ll generate more grounders. That will not only help produce more ground ball outs, but will also help his efforts to keep the ball in the park.

While he has always been a four-pitch pitcher, Kennedy showed reluctance to use his curveball in 2008. Instead he used his fastball 63.3 percent of the time. Some pitchers can get by with that usage level, but when the pitch averages 89.1 mph, secondary stuff becomes necessary. Kennedy went mostly to his changeup, but that apparently was not fooling AL hitters. This season he has thrown 56.5 percent fastballs, though that includes many more two-seamers. He has relied heavily on his changeup, throwing it 20.6 percent of the time, but has also mixed in his curveball much more frequently. It accounts for 16.9 percent of his pitches. This comes at the cost of his slider, a pitch that AL hitters destroyed in 2008.

There are still some negative signs with Kennedy, starting with his .225 BABIP. That will come up, but his declining home run rate could off-set that. Combined with a high strikeout rate — and only 2 of 27 have been of the pitcher — and a low walk rate, and he could certainly turn in a good season. It’s too early to definitively conclude that Kennedy’s luck will change for the better, but there are some indications that it will.