Ian Kennedy Is Doing a Fabulous Impression of an Ace

The Kansas City Royals had won 13 of 15 games entering play on Tuesday only to lose their last two games in one-run, extra-inning fashion to the Yankees. They are now three games back in the Wild Card race and trailing five other teams in competition for two spots. Two weeks ago our playoff odds gave them a less than 1% chance of making the playoffs — and, two days ago, those odds were 9.4% — but after last night’s loss, they’ve fallen back down to 4.7%. Have the Royals really pulled themselves back into contention or has their late-season surge been for naught? They’ve proven projection systems wrong many times before and it’s possible the Royals are preparing for a magical run in September, but it’s undeniable that their path to the playoffs is not an easy one.

What strikes me most about the Royals’ recent run of success is that it’s come largely on the strength of what has been considered the team’s biggest weakness: starting pitching. Over the past 30 days, only the Cubs and Red Sox have posted a lower starters’ ERA than the Royals’ 3.42. Add in the bullpens and the Royals have recorded a 2.77 team ERA in the past 30 days, a figure which narrowly trails the Cubs’ 2.75 team ERA and is head and shoulders above the third-best team ERA over that stretch – the Pirates’ 3.41 mark. Meanwhile, their offense has posted a team wRC+ of 84 during that same stretch which is 26th worst in the majors and just a smidge ahead of the flailing Phillies offense (85 wRC+).

Inasmuch as the Royals have climbed back into contention, they’ve done it on the strength of pitching, which means it’s time to take a look at one of the key pieces in this resurgence, their much-mocked free-agent acquisition and current ace: Ian Kennedy.

One of my favorite things about baseball is the multitude of skillsets you can find in major-league players. A center fielder might be a fast runner with little power like Billy Hamilton or he might be a comparatively slow power hitter like Yoenis Cespedes. A starting pitcher might throw high-90s heat like Noah Syndergaard or he might get by with a low-80s fastball and a knuckler like the pitcher for whom Syndergaard was traded. Every player has strengths and weaknesses (excuse me, every human player… she clarifies, eyeing Mike Trout suspiciously) and there is no “correct” balance of skills that makes a player a major leaguer. Ian Kennedy is certainly human and in possession of an intriguing balance of strengths and weaknesses which culminated in his ability to secure a five-year, $70 million contract last offseason.

If you’ve had occasion to follow Kennedy’s career at all, you know that he is a pitcher with an ability to miss bats at a rate that puts him in rather elite company. Over the past three seasons, he’s posted an above-average 24.1% strikeout rate and a roughly league-average 7.7% walk rate. The players with the most comparable rates over that same time period? Cole Hamels (24.0% K, 7.6% BB) and Felix Hernandez (24.1% K, 6.9% BB). Where Kennedy diverges from that elite company, however, is in his propensity to give up home runs. He possesses the unfortunate trait combination of being a fly-ball pitcher with a high HR/FB rate. As a result, his 1.29 HR/9 mark over the past three seasons is the sixth worst in the majors among the 57 pitchers who’ve recorded 450-plus innings.

The reason to talk about this today is that, over the past six weeks, we’ve gotten a glimpse of what Kennedy could look like if his most glaring flaw did not exist. During his past eight starts, he’s pitched 50.2 innings and yielded just three home runs. Do the math at home and you’ll find that works out to 0.53 HR/9 rate, which is about 60% lower than his 1.29 average over the past three seasons. The results have been tremendous in that Kennedy has posted a 2.31 ERA over these eight games and yielded two or fewer runs in six of those starts.

The website you’re currently reading is called FanGraphs, so let’s take a gander at that decline in home-run rate in graphical form:

Kennedy HR Rate

That’s one Matterhorn-esque mountain he’s built this season. You’ll see Kennedy previously sustained home-run rates this low in 2014, but that was his first year in San Diego, back when Petco Park was where fly balls went to die. Of course, Kennedy does once again play in a home park which is conducive to keeping fly balls in play — and four of the eight games in his recent stretch have come at home. However, that means he’s also made four road appearances, including a homer-less game at Texas, one of the league’s most homer-friendly parks. Has Kennedy turned a corner and found a way to overcome one of his greatest weaknesses on the mound?

The potentially good news is that there has been a discernible change in how Kennedy is pitching his opponents.

Kennedy Pitch Usage

He’s been steadily moving away from his changeup and is relying on his fastball more than ever before. Fastball usage around 70% is about as high as you’ll find from any starting pitcher not named Bartolo Colon and Kennedy has a pretty good fastball on which to lean. He’s generating whiffs on 22.5% of swings against the pitch this year, which is in the 83rd percentile of starters who have thrown at least 200 four-seamers. However, his fastball is not exactly a worm-killer, as it is among the league leaders in fly balls per ball in play.

Perhaps even more significantly, his rate of fly balls induced on the pitch has not diminished with the increased usage of late:

Kennedy FB fly ball rate

There also haven’t been any significant changes to the pitch in other key indicators: velocity, movement, release point, whiffs, line drives, etc. have all remained steady. As for the changeup that he’s been abandoning, this season it has the highest ground-ball rate and lowest ISO against of all of his pitches. Per our weighted pitch values, the changeup has been Kennedy’s most valuable secondary pitch this season. So it’s not as though Kennedy has removed an obvious dud from his arsenal.

Which brings us to this somewhat inconvenient truth: the things that have changed significantly about Kennedy of late are essentially his home-run rate, fastball usage and little else. He gives up hard contact, which often manifests itself in home runs. Lately his hard-contact rate and his fly-ball rate haven’t shown the improvements you would want to see in order to buy in to this new home-run-resistant Kennedy.

Kennedy Hard% FB%

What does it all mean? Essentially that everything we knew about Kennedy before is still true. He has strengths and weaknesses. When his home-run vulnerability goes into hiding, as it has over the six weeks, he resembles a true ace pitcher — someone on whom a team like the Royals can rely to lead them back to the postseason. However, that weakness is likely to show back up at any time. Perhaps if they’re able to get to October, the cold weather could be a boon to a pitcher like Kennedy and help him keep the ball in the yard, but it will be a massive uphill climb for the Royals to get to that spot made only harder if and when Kennedy’s home-run rates regress to his norm.

Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and MLB.com's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

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Matthew Tobin
7 years ago

Ian Kennedy is always someone who if you squinted really hard and imagined the home run rate dropping looked like a #2. And then he would give up 7 HR the next two starts