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On Not Seeing That Coming: Ian Kennedy

I wasn’t a giant fan of Ian Kennedy coming into 2013. Kennedy the pitcher, that is, not the person — after all, he might be as charming as the Dos Equis guy for all I know. But Ian Kennedy kind of registered on my radar as a respectable fourth, maybe fifth starter in a pretty good rotation. He ought to give you a decent ERA, acceptable WHIP, and perhaps a strikeout rate that flirts with about 22%.

The allure of Kennedy’s 2011 season was what likely drove his ADP up into the 10th and 11th rounds, well before the likes of Mike Minor, Matt Harvey, Lance Lynn, and a host of other cherry-picked examples of pitchers who have been far more useful. Indeed, Kennedy’s 21-4 season in 2011 came with nearly 200 strikeouts, 2.88 ERA, and 1.09 WHIP. The predictors didn’t scream fluke, but perhaps the 3.22 FIP was a whisper that he was getting a touch lucky.

If 2012 was a little ho-hum, then 2013 has just been awful. Kennedy has thrown 101.2 innings thus far, giving up 65 earned runs while walking 40 batters, good for a 5.42 ERA and 1.40 WHIP. Everything appears trending in the wrong direction for Kennedy in 2013. His swinging strike rate and strikeout rate are down, his walks are up, his contact rate is up and his line drive rate is up significantly. He’s at the point where he’s unusable in almost any format imaginable. And even if I wasn’t particularly high on him going into the season, I certainly didn’t expect this kind of debacle.

My knee jerk reaction is always to look at the velocity, and in Kennedy, the fastball actually has more zip in 2013 than it was in 2012:

2012 2013
April 90.2 90.8
May 90.91 90.13
June 90.5 91.55
July 89.71 91.5

And in using his fastball roughly 60% of the time, it’s a particularly important pitch for him. But despite the increase in velocity, batters are finding it easier to square the ball up. Here’s his line drive rate per month on his fastball from 2012 to 2013:

2012 2013
Apr 13.56% 28.99%
May 20% 27.03%
Jun 17.86% 35.71%
Jul 21.92% 56.52%

In 2012, versus Kennedy’s fastball, hitters averaged a .268 batting average and .468 slugging percentage. Not thrilling, but his change was effective enough to keep things respectable. In 2013, hitters are averaging .314 on the fastball and slugging .562. Obviously we can’t take a 56% line drive rate on his fastball in July to the bank because of the sample, but the trend is nevertheless concerning. Taken as a whole, April-June averaged about 30% line drives on his fastball. It’s not that he’s just failing to fool hitters, he’s been far too easy to hit.

In general, Kennedy has been been working behind in the count far more often than he did in 2012:


This might lead him to get more of the plate, and thus — more line drives and crummy outcomes. And things appear to go south quickly for Kennedy. Looking at his first 25 pitches from this year versus last, hitters are taking early advantage of him:


The sample is a little small for 2013, but that’s a pretty sweet slash line for hitters right out of the gate. I don’t know if this speaks to his preparation, but his first inning results produce the worst slash line (for him) out of any inning over the course of the current season.

You have to squint pretty hard to see good news for Kennedy. His BABIP is a tiny bit above his career average, but certainly doesn’t smack of bad luck at .298. His 67% strand rate isn’t particularly good and could creep up towards his career rate of 74% given some good fortune. His HR/FB is uncharacteristically high. But I’m not sure these things come close to mitigating what appears to be a train on the brink of derailment.