Pondering Ian Kennedy’s Potential in the NL

With Brandon Webb possibly starting the season on the DL, the back of the Diamondbacks rotation will have to step up in the early goings. This affects no one more than Ian Kennedy, whom the Diamondbacks acquired from the Yankees this off-season. He came into camp expected to compete for a starting gig, and with Webb out his spot seems more of a certainty. The Diamondbacks sound eager to see what Kennedy can do now that he’s out of the AL East and in the weaker hitting National League. But can he succeed in the hitter friendly confines of Chase Field?

Kennedy is not short on potential. He put his talent on display during his first two seasons at USC, striking out 278 batters in 209.2 IP during his freshman and sophomore years. His performance dropped off during his junior year, as his ERA rose by over a full run and his strikeout rate dropped, though he still struck out a batter per inning. The knock on that year was that he lost a few miles per hour on his fastball. Despite the performance and speed loss, the Yankees picked him in the first round of the 2006 draft.

While, like many of his peers, he didn’t sign in time to pitch significant innings in his draft year, Kennedy came on strong in 2007. Starting in advanced-A ball he dominated the minors, climbing to AAA by August. His strikeout rate jumped back above a batter per inning, to about 10 per nine — though that dropped a bit at AAA. Impressed by his rapid rise through the system, the Yankees called him up in September to start in place of the struggling Mike Mussina, a pitcher to whom Kennedy has drawn comparisons. He pitched very well in his three starts, leading the Yankees to hand him a rotation spot the following year.

This is where Kennedy unraveled. In his first six starts he saw the fifth inning just three times. He had problems throwing strikes and ended up walking 20 batters in 24.2 innings. This seemed particularly odd, because walks were never a problem for Kennedy. He didn’t have the lowest walk rate, but it was at 3.0 per nine in the minors in 2007, a respectable rate. The walk issues begat baserunners, which begat runs and plenty of them. After allowing 23 in his six starts, the Yankees demoted him to AAA.

He returned to the majors twice, but faced similar issues. In his second stint he walked fewer batters, five in 14 IP, but allowed four home runs in that span. An injury shelved him for a month, and when he returned it was apparent that the Yankees did not want him back in the majors. His only performance afterward came on August 8, a horrible two-inning, five-run outing against the Angels coming after Joba Chamberlain hurt his shoulder. Even after Kennedy finished the season at AAA, the Yankees did not recall him in September.

Now, after missing almost all of 2009 recovering from surgery to remove an aneurysm under his right armpit, Kennedy will attempt to resurrect his career in the National League. While he might find it easier going than the AL East, his troubles could still follow him to Arizona. His minor league track record doesn’t bode well for his ability to keep runners of the base paths and, more importantly, his ability to keep the ball in the park.

Throughout his college and minor league career, Kennedy did a great job of limiting opponents’ home runs. He allowed just six home runs during his 2007 run through the minors, and then allowed just four in his 69 innings in 2008. This ability, however, had much to do with his unsustainably low 3.6 HR/FB% in the minors. This number figures to rise in the majors — it was at 7.6 percent in 2008 with the Yankees, and could get even higher at Chase Field, which has ranked as one of the most homer-friendly parks in the majors over the last three seasons. Even worse for Kennedy, he has always been a fly ball pitcher, allowing 41 percent fly balls in the minors and, in his limited major league experience, 48.7 percent.

His other college and minor league strength, his strikeout rate, probably won’t translate to the majors. Throughout his minor league career he struck out 9.63 hitters per nine innings, or 28 percent of the batters he faced. During his 59.2 major league innings that number has been 6.49 per nine, or 15.5 percent. While that could certainly rise, especially in the NL, he likely won’t approach his minor league numbers. That, combined with his unspectacular walk rate, could hurt his chances for success.

None of this, of course, precludes Kennedy’s success. Perhaps his work with the Diamondbacks coaches will help him rediscover what made him a standout college pitcher and first round draft pick. Maybe the aneurysm surgery fixed a lingering issue in his arm. His performance to date, however, in both the majors and minors, does not portent success. He’ll need to make changes in order to keep the ball out of the air, and in the park, while pitching in Arizona. Even if he doesn’t he could make a nice No. 5 starter, but if he does he could become even more valuable to the Diamondbacks. With Brandon Webb out to start the season and possibly gone after the season, they could certainly use the help.

Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

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Another nice read, Joe.

IPK has supposedly added a two-seamer to his repertoire. Perhaps that will help him keep the ball down in Arizona (and, maybe, instead of nibbling with his 4-seamer, the addition of the 2-seamer will help him keep his walk rate pretty low).