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The New and Improved Kyle Kendrick

Though he was originally called up as a full-time starter in 2007, Kyle Kendrick has been anything but full-time since 2009. In 2007 and 2008, Kendrick made 51 appearances and 50 of them were starts, but just 67 of his next 107 appearances were as a starter, a rate that has been even lower the past two seasons as Kendrick started 15 of his 34 games in 2011 and 19 of 31 this season. Needless to say, this variable usage pattern makes Kendrick a tough player to draft and hold for an entire season.

As far as this season is concerned, the only obstacle to ownership bigger than Kendrick’s usage was his performance. In the first half of the season, Kendrick allowed opposing hitters to rack up an .822 OPS, which left him with a 4.89 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP and rendered him all but useless. An effective stint in the bullpen later, and Kendrick has emerged as a far better pitcher than he was in the first half, posting a 2.95 ERA and 1.01 WHIP over his six starts in August; his last four outings in the month were even better as he went 4-0 with a 1.23 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP. The .198 BABIP he rode to those results may not stick around, but Kendrick’s string of successful outings isn’t just some mirage. Beating the Marlins and Mets may not be the world’s toughest task, but beating the Nationals and Brewers — the best offense of the bunch — is a better example of what Kendrick has been quietly doing lately, the question is what changed.

The most noticeable difference for Kendrick has been his pitch usage. According to the Pitch F/X numbers, Kendrick throws his cut fastball about 28 percent of the time, but only once in his last six starts did he throw more than 25 percent cutters and that was his worst outing of the bunch. In his last four starts, Kendrick has maxed out his cutter usage at 16 percent and has dropped it as low as 4.4 percent. Given how many pitches this leaves unassigned, it should come as little surprise that both his sinker and changeup usage are up substantially. While his sinker has been his primary pitch all season — which has been the case since he returned from his extended absence in 2009 — he’s throwing it far more than he was early in the season. He throws sinkers on average for about 46 percent of his pitches, and while he failed to do that in the disaster outing he had against the Braves on August 8 — the aforementioned worst outing of his month — he exceeded 47 percent in every other outing in the month. In his last four starts, he never threw less than 54 percent sinkers. Kendrick’s success is somewhat counterintuitive since his cutter actually has the best weighted pitch value of his pitches, but this looks like a case where less really is more.

Tuesday’s matchup against the Reds in Cincinnati is hardly ideal for Kendrick, but it represents an interesting test for the righty. While he has been pitching better lately, he’s still giving up almost a home run a game as a starter, what has changed is that the inevitable home run now represents most or all of the damage done instead of just a small piece. If he can keep the Reds to a pair of solo shots over six or seven innings, it’s hard to view that as a failure, but if those home runs come with men on base, then he could be in real trouble for the first time in five starts. Irrespective of how he does on Tuesday, his schedule gets much easier with starts against the Marlins and Astros next on his docket.

While I can’t argue with sitting Kendrick against the Reds, he’s definitely worth rostering ahead of his subsequent starts. His walks are low, his line drive rate is down from his season average, and while a home run or two is probably more likely than not, he’s proved he can survive those bumps to be a functional fantasy option down the stretch.