Ian Kennedy Is an Asset

Some years ago, Ian Kennedy was a reliable mid-rotation starter, utilizing a four-seam-heavy attack and leaning on his ability to generate fly-ball outs for success. Kennedy eclipsed 190 innings pitched in a season five times, highlighted by a 2011 campaign in which he threw 222 innings for the Diamondbacks, finishing with a 2.88 ERA, a 3.22 FIP, 4.4 WAR, and fourth place in the National League Cy Young Award voting.

Kennedy’s fastball has always been his go-to pitch. Since debuting in 2007, Kennedy has thrown a four-seam fastball 61% of the time, the highest percentage among any pitcher with a minimum of 1,000 innings pitched during that timeframe. Kennedy’s fastball has shown flashes of brilliance, with impressive wFA/C totals of 1.43, 0.73, and 0.97 in 2011, 2014, and 2016, respectively.

Of course, someone with such a fly-ball-heavy approach could find himself running into some barriers to success as modern hitters continue to adjust and hit the ball out of the park. Kennedy’s success as a starter in 2016 for the then-defending World Series champion Royals dwindled in the next two seasons as his FIP ballooned and hitters continued to hit the ball out of the park against him. Kennedy’s 2017 and 2018 campaigns resulted in his lowest innings pitched totals in nearly a decade, as well as career-low strikeout rates. During those two seasons, opposing hitters were especially productive against his fastball, putting up a wOBA of .359 and hitting 48 extra-base hits against the pitch. Their average exit velocity and launch angle against fastballs in 2017 and 2018 were 90.7 mph and 24 degrees.

With Kennedy still owed $33 million through the end of 2020, the Royals needed to find a way to once again extract value out of their veteran right-hander and announced in spring training that Kennedy would move to the bullpen. The hope, ostensibly, was that Kennedy’s struggles would diminish as he no longer faced the task of turning over lineups. In 2018, Kennedy’s opponents had a .971 OPS the second time through the lineup, the worst mark in baseball out of 162 pitchers who faced at least 100 hitters a second time through. Opening up rotation spots could afford the rebuilding Royals a chance to challenge some younger pitchers while trying to extract value out of Kennedy in the bullpen.

The early returns of Ian Kennedy as a reliever have been, well, good. Very good, in fact. Hindsight, of course, is 20-20, and being that today is the first day of summer, jumping to finite conclusions now reek of sample size concerns. Kennedy’s performance out of the back of the Kansas City bullpen has been, by nearly all rate stats, a marked improvement over Kennedy’s performance out of the Kansas City starting rotation. Consider the following:

Ian Kennedy’s Rate Stats
2017 2018 2019
IP 154.0 119.2 30.0
FIP- 130 111 47
WAR 0.0 1.0 0.9
K% 20.0% 20.3% 29.7%
BB% 9.3% 7.7% 3.9%
GB% 36.0% 29.9% 44.6%

How has he done it? He’s thrown even more fastballs. And those fastballs have been thrown harder.

Ian Kennedy’s Fastballs
2017 2018 2019
Fastball % 61.6% 58.8% 65.1%
Average velocity 92 mph 91.9 mph 93.9 mph

The title of this post is “Ian Kennedy Is an Asset.” Ian Kennedy has been an asset before. He’s been an asset that has been traded before. The Yankees dealt him to the Diamondbacks after the 2009 season in a three-team deal involving Phil Coke, Austin Jackson, Curtis Granderson, Edwin Jackson, Daniel Schlereth, and Max Scherzer. At the trade deadline in 2013, he was traded to the Padres in exchange for Joe Thatcher and Matt Stites. The Royals are currently 22.5 games out of first place and had a 2019 Opening Day payroll 19% less than 2018’s. Only Alex Gordon is making more than Ian Kennedy on this year’s Royals team, with Kennedy’s $16.5 million accounting for almost 17% of the overall payroll. One could extrapolate that Kennedy’s value as an asset lies not in his ability to execute for the present iteration of the Royals, but as an asset that could garner a newfound trade value for a contender.

Kennedy’s production, of course, can be flagged for some regression. His Whiff% and Chase% are both just above 1% better than league average. His FIP- – a sterling 47 – is buoyed by a career-low 5.7% HR/FB rate. Still, Kennedy has been good. His K-BB% is a career-best and more than twice as good as 2018’s. His opponents are hitting more ground balls against him than ever before and are making weaker contact than at any point in the Statcast era.

The batted ball data against Kennedy is especially intriguing:

Ian Kennedy, Opponent Batted Ball Data
2017 percentile 2018 percentile 2019 percentile
Exit velocity against 2nd 17th 89th
Hard hit % 24th 41st 92nd
xwOBA 9th 16th 95th
xBA 34th 24th 92nd
xSLG 3rd 4th 83rd

Consider a team like the Phillies, the third-youngest team in baseball (average age of 26.4 years old), whose oldest player is five months younger than Kennedy. The Phillies’ young bullpen has been a weakness in 2019, so far yielding -0.2 WAR, a 5.05 FIP, and having a cumulative wFB/C of -0.20. Consider also the Braves, currently competing in the NL East with the aforementioned Phillies. Braves relievers have also been worth -0.2 WAR this season, and although their FIP is slightly better than the Phillies’ at 4.69, their cumulative wFB/C – -1.34 – is the worst of any bullpen in baseball.

Kennedy’s addition to a team like the Phillies or a team like the Braves would likely not be overly costly and could help bolster a bullpen that could use solidification. Should, say, the Royals be willing to pay down some of Kennedy’s remaining time under contract, a middle-tier prospect from the depth of either the Philadelphia or Atlanta farm systems could be an attractive commodity in return.

Kennedy’s resurgence as a quality major league contributor presents a potential valuable addition for a contending team, one that was highly unlikely just a few months ago. Could this resurgence also serve as a trendsetter for other similar careers? Take, for example, Jordan Zimmermann, who is also under contract with Detroit through the end of 2020. Once a fastball-dominant workhorse (since 2007 Zimmermann is second to Kennedy in fastball usage amongst pitchers with at least 1,000 IP) with two All-Star Game appearances and a top-five Cy Young finish under his belt, Zimmermann has since seen a decrease in fastball velocity, effectiveness, and usage since 2017. As his fastball quality has decreased, so has his ground-ball rate, which has, in turn, caused home run issues similar to Kennedy’s as a starter. Perhaps a shift to the bullpen could behoove Zimmermann, whose fastball spin rate and whose opponent exit velocities used to be among the top percentiles in baseball.

Kennedy’s early returns in his new role are intriguing and could serve as a positive example of the game’s overall continued shift toward specialization and optimization of skillsets. A team looking for bullpen help could find it in Kansas City, a place where they were unlikely to be looking a few months ago.

Josh Herzenberg has served as an area scout and a minor league coach for the Dodgers. He can be found on Twitter @JoshHerzenberg.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

Great piece. Phillies do seem like the ideal market given Kennedy’s high salary for 19/20 and their ability to absorb (short-term) cost. However, since none of the Braves/Nationals/Red Sox made a big move on Kimbrel, I’d be surprised how large the market for Kennedy actually is.

I might expect to see a Encarnacion-type negotiation where the prospect return is proportional to how much salary KC is willing to eat.

People’s thoughts on what might be a fair FV/salary-eat tradeoff?

3 years ago
Reply to  Scoreboard

Perhaps a 35+ prospect (or two) + willing to eat ~$12M (roughly half) of the remaining $?

3 years ago
Reply to  Scoreboard

The Royals have historically never eaten a significant part of a salary. They almost always would rather save cost in exchange for a lesser prospect.

The only one I can think of is Travis Wood, where they sent $8M to the Padres.

They owed Soria another $9M but only covered his buyout the next year ($1M). In the process, they also coughed up Scott Alexander and got back a pair of non-prospects (Oaks and Mejia). The White Sox flipped him six months later for Kodi Medeiros.

They owed Kelvin Herrera another $4.4M but made the Nationals pick up the tab on it and got back little (not that Herrera would have commanded a ton anyways but most were surprised by his return).

3 years ago
Reply to  Scoreboard

The best comp I can think of is Joakim Soria, who the Brewers paid about (I think) $4M once the buyout got factored in, and who got back Medeiros (an FV40 who was about to be Rule 5 eligible) and a Wilber Perez (a fringe prospect, not graded). So if you want an FV40 who is Rule 5 eligible, I’d guess you need to keep this year’s salary down to about $4M, and probably next year’s down to about $8M–and maybe less, depending on the team.

The good news is that there are a lot of teams who could part with an FV40; the bad news is that the Royals would have to eat a lot more money than they’re used to.