A Thorough Consideration of Ian Kennedy

You probably didn’t wake up today thinking “today I’d like to read something about Ian Kennedy.” That’s fine. You probably didn’t wake up yesterday thinking “today I’d like to read something about Wei-Yin Chen” or “today I’d like to read something about the Marlins,” but both those things got folded into the same post. It’s the middle of January. This isn’t the time of year when people are thinking about baseball. Even when people are thinking about baseball, they’re only very infrequently thinking about Ian Kennedy. Even he knows he’s not the most high-profile starting pitcher around.

It’s just — okay: Posts have to be written. They might as well be written about what’s going on. And at the moment, Kennedy remains a free agent, with reports indicating his market has heated up. At any moment now, Kennedy could officially end up with a new employer, and he’s going to get a mid-eight-figure deal. Maybe it’s going to come from the Royals. Maybe it’s going to come from the Orioles or somebody else, but a deal will materialize. Right now Kennedy is of some interest, so it’s time for him to be thoroughly considered. The following will be conducted with points and counterpoints.

The starting position: Kennedy is a free-agent starting pitcher. He’s available to anyone with money and an opening. Or, at least, a potential opening. So let’s go with money and interest. If you want Ian Kennedy, and if you can afford Ian Kennedy, you can get Ian Kennedy.

BUT

Last season, Kennedy allowed the highest OPS among all qualified pitchers. Literally the very highest — higher than Alfredo Simon, and higher than Aaron Harang. Now, the fact that Kennedy managed to be a qualified pitcher in the first place indicates it wasn’t all bad, but that’s true for all the qualified pitchers, and…Kennedy allowed the highest OPS. He basically turned his average opponent into Mitch Moreland. That’s not a wonderfully-constructed sentence, since maybe you don’t realize how good a hitter Moreland was last season, but Moreland was a good hitter last season. Strong. This happened to Kennedy in the National League, spending half his time pitching in San Diego.

BUT

The season before, among all qualified pitchers, Kennedy was around the middle of the pack. He was in a similar situation, but his OPS was better by well more than 100 points, and he wound up tied with Shelby Miller and Yovani Gallardo. A tiny bit better than James Shields. It’s not like Kennedy hasn’t been good recently; he just hasn’t been good most recently. But there is a decent track record here.

BUT

Kennedy just allowed home runs on more than 17% of his fly balls. Only Shields and Kyle Kendrick were worse — by less than half of one percentage point. Several of Kennedy’s pitches were getting slaughtered. He had a legitimate dinger problem, and there’s no quicker ticket out of a game than giving up dingers. It’s the single worst possible outcome.

BUT

You know how finicky these things are. The year before last, Kennedy allowed home runs on less than 8% of his fly balls. So he had the opposite of a dinger problem. (A dinger solution?) His career mark is just under 11%, over more than 1,200 innings. And I decided to do a bit of bigger-picture research. Since 2002, 1,286 pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings in back-to-back seasons. I looked at the best and worst home-run pitchers in Year 1. I grouped all the pitchers with Year 1 HR/FB rates of at least 16% — they averaged 17.4%. In Year 2, they averaged 11.0%. At the other end, I grouped all the pitchers with Year 1 rates no higher than 6% — they averaged 5.2%. In Year 2, they averaged 9.4%. Something, yes. But so, so heavily regressed. Kennedy probably isn’t a pitcher with a home-run problem. He’s a pitcher who had a home-run problem.

BUT

Over the last three years, only Kyle Lohse and Colby Lewis own higher hard-hit rates. It follows that Kennedy also has a low soft-hit rate. Evidence certainly suggests that Kennedy is a below-average contact manager, that batters are able to get pretty good swings. In this way he isn’t Wei-Yin Chen.

BUT

One way to compensate for allowing hard contact? Allowing less contact. Used to be, Kennedy struck out roughly a fifth of all the hitters he faced. The last two years, he’s finished closer to a quarter. His strikeouts played up in 2014, and last year he didn’t give any of them back. It leads to a nifty K-BB%. Again, over two years, Kennedy has managed about the same K-BB% as Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Cole Hamels, and Phil Hughes. He’s been higher than Tyson Ross and Dallas Keuchel. Many of the peripherals you want are there. Kennedy does throw enough strikes, and he punches hitters out. This is the good stuff.

BUT

Sort pitchers from the last two years by K-BB%. Kennedy ranks 23rd. He’s the only guy in the top 30 with a three-digit ERA-.

BUT

You could just as easily argue that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. The xFIP- of 94 puts Kennedy even with Jeff Samardzija, who signed for $90 million. And he cost a draft pick.

BUT

Kennedy, also, will cost a draft pick. The Padres extended a qualifying offer, and now there will be extra value to be lost. You’re talking about a potential first-rounder, in exchange for a starting pitcher who just got hit around in his age-30 season. Some would argue it’s a steep price to pay.

BUT

Marco Estrada signed for two years and $26 million, and he cost a would-be pick. Wei-Yin Chen cost a pick at five and $80 million. John Lackey cost a pick at two and $32 million. Daniel Murphy cost a pick at three and $37.5 million. Draft picks are important, but they become far less important outside of the top five or top 10, and those are the protected picks. Remember, free agents can help you win right away. Even a good draft pick won’t likely return value for two or three years, at least.

BUT

Kennedy spent a lot of time last season trying to work on fixing his mechanics. You want your seasoned veterans to be pretty stable and consistent, but it seemed like Kennedy spent months just trying to find himself, with the help of his pitching coach.

BUT

Kennedy made a simple adjustment between his last start of May and his first start of June — he shifted over several inches on the rubber.

kennedy

It’s subtle, but these things usually are, and the adjustment more or less stuck the rest of the way. And, coincidentally or not coincidentally, Kennedy’s OPS allowed afterward improved by roughly 200 points. He still gave up some dingers, but Kennedy was much, much more effective as he distanced himself from the season’s start.

BUT

Kennedy just went on the DL for the first time since 2008. The best predictor of future injury is past injury.

BUT

He went on the DL with a hamstring strain. His arm has been fine, and he’s made at least 30 starts in all six of his seasons as a regular. So Kennedy has durability working in his favor, and beyond that, if anything his stuff is playing up. His first four years as a big-league starter, Kennedy’s fastball averaged about 90. Two years ago, he was at 91.8, and last year he was at 91.3. Last year his velocity also improved between May and June, as he made other mechanical adjustments. This is a quiet aspect to Kennedy’s re-emergence: he’s still allowed his hard contact, but he’s thrown harder than ever, and you have to figure that goes into the strikeout hike. You also have to figure that’s encouraging, as an indicator of health. It’s unusual for velocity to build as a pitcher gains years. Usually velocity starts declining early. Someone else who’s bucked the trend is J.A. Happ, who’s added strength as he’s aged. James Shields did the same before giving something back last season. Kennedy’s arm seems to be in good shape, for a pitcher his age, with that many miles.

=====

I’m not sure there’s anything more to be said. For every negative, there’s a positive; for every positive, there’s a negative. What we’re left with is something on the order of a league-average starter, with ball-in-play upside and ball-in-play downside, and the market has so far rewarded pitchers like this, so Kennedy shouldn’t be punished too much. Mike Leake has age on his side, and his own fastball has improved, but Leake probably has the bigger home-run problem. To add Ian Kennedy isn’t to add anything sensational, but there’s probably not a team in baseball he wouldn’t make at least a little bit better. Soon, we’ll find out where he goes. The fans, probably, will come away underwhelmed. Still, he’s likely to do more good than harm. He’s an addition you like more during the year than during the offseason. There’s not much point in winning the offseason.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.



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hoffmms
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hoffmms

On the contrary, I was just wondering Mr. Kennedy this morning…Thanks for the piece.

scotman144
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scotman144

Seconded: I’m just happy to have a Jeff Sullivan analysis of anything baseball in the middle of January.

Ebenezer
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Ebenezer

I was just hoping he wouldn’t shoot me into outer space.

Will H.
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Will H.

Oh oh, oh oh!

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