The development of Ian Kennedy

Ian Kennedy (Icon/SMI)

In a few years, trading away Jesus Montero might be hurt Yankees fans the most, but for now the loss of Ian Kennedy can’t feel too good. Sure, Curtis Granderson turned into a 40-homer hitter in 2011 and the Yankees added Michael Pineda and signed Hiroki Kuroda. But for any other team, the loss would have hurt a lot more.

Kennedy was a very solid prospect and graded a B+ according to John Sickels in his 2008 season. In the minors he dominated at each level including Triple-A where he finished with an ERA of 2.14, a K/BB of 3.74 in 126.1 innings. His strikeouts and walks looked ready to dominate and he got his first chance in 2007 with the Yankees.

His sudden success was a bit of luck as his K/9 was only 7.11 and he walked too many hitters with a BB/9 of 4.26. His ERA looked sparkling at 1.86, but his BABIP was only .231 and his HR/FB only 3.7 percent. His xFIP of 4.86 and SIERA of 4.98 spoke of potential problems, but with only 19 innings he looked forward to 2008 to prove himself.

Things did not go well in 2008 when Kennedy got blasted to start the year with an ERA of 8.17 as his luck seemed to even out. In 39.2 innings his K/9 was only 6.13 and he had a BB/9 of 5.90. Then he strained his right lat muscle and would pitch only two more innings in 2008, and one in 2009 as he suffered an aneurism in his shoulder and missed nearly the entire season.

The injuries along with the struggles through nearly 60 innings led to Kennedy’s exit from New York as he was moved in the three team trade involving Curtis Granderson. The first season, Kennedy adjusted well with his K/9 climbing to 7.79 and seemed able to control his walks better with a BB/9 of 3.25. The best news was his ability to stay healthy as he totaled 194 innings and his velocity held all season long.

His career was back on track and he looked like a solid middle of the rotation guy for the Diamondbacks. His xFIP of 4.10 and SIERA at 3.99 confirmed Kennedy was a solid option in the D-backs rotation. His large jump in innings might have been a concern, but it was hard not to be optimistic.

In 2011 Kennedy was able to develop even more. His velocity stayed up and even increased as the year went on. Looking at the velocity chart below you can see his average velocity increased after the midpoint of the season.

Ian Kennedy Velocity Chart

With this increased velocity Kennedy was not only able to get better as the season went on. Here is his month by month splits for 2011:

Split         K/9     BB/9     K/BB       K%      BB%      FIP     xFIP
Mar/Apr       7.38     2.08     3.56   20.00%    5.60%     3.23     3.58
May           6.86     2.88     2.38   18.90%    7.90%     3.64     4.04
Jun           8.27     1.95     4.25   22.70%    5.30%      3.4     3.22
Jul           8.53     2.84        3   22.40%    7.50%     3.72     3.47
Aug           7.85     2.08     3.78   21.30%    5.60%     3.79      3.8
Sept/Oct      9.61     1.56     6.17   28.00%    4.60%     1.41     2.75

Kennedy was able to maintain his strikeouts, limit his walks and even do his best work in September. There seemed to be an additional effect during his late season run as his fastball was increasingly classified as a sinker according to the new Brooks baseball player card. If you look up at his velocity chart above you’ll see a large spike in grey and less black in the last grouping. It looks like his fastball added some movement as the velocity is the same for both, but the sinker has more vertical movement as well as horizontal movement. According to Brooks he went from throwing the sinker eight percent of the time before August of 2011 to 23 percent of the time for the rest of 2011.

I would have expected more ground balls at the end of the year with this new sinker, but that hasn’t been the case yet. His groundball rate for the season was 38 percent and fell to 33 percent in August and 35 percent in September. It’s possible instead of this being a true “sinker” there was some change as his release point fell slightly throughout the year as you can see below. This might explain the large sudden jump from eight to 23 percent.

Ian Kennedy vertical release

A drop in release point can be concerning, but I wouldn’t be too worried yet. He maintained his velocity and control throughout the entire season. Watching his arm slot and sinker classification will be interesting. The fact that this was such a large change and came all so suddenly makes it all the more interesting.

Kennedy was one of the 10 best pitchers in 2011 with a fWAR of 5.0. His OLIVER projection (Hardball Times Forecasts) calls for another great season in 2012 with an ERA of 3.25, 201 strikeouts, 63 walks and a WAR of 5.3. It looks like health is the only thing that can stop Kennedy now and with one more healthy season, he could put the title of injury-prone pitcher behind him.

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