Last winter, about this time, Dayton Moore was signalling that the Royals were unlikely to raise payroll again, and that they likely would not make a splash in free agency. Of course, it wasn't long after that he signed Alex Gordon to the most lucrative free agent contract in franchise history. Less than a month after that, he signed Ian Kennedy to a deal nearly as expensive, inking the right-hander to a five-year, $70 million deal.
The signing was mostly panned, and for good reason since Kennedy was coming off several very mediocre seasons in San Diego. But as the season progress, you could see what the Royals were thinking. He made every start, giving them a dependable starter. He could miss bats. His flyballs could turn into outs at Kauffman Stadium.
Kennedy really had a weird season. First he was good, then he was bad, then he was good again. You can see his season splits nicely into three parts.
It is like a three-act play. In Act I, our hero looks like a terrific free agent signing, the front-of-the-rotation guy this team needed. In Act II, he faces adversity, battling a protagonist - in this case, home run hitters - who best him and leave us wondering if he can overcome his obstacles. In Act III, the denoument, Kennedy battles back and vanquishes his foe, the longball, to triumph in victory.
What is interesting is that his peripherals improved greatly when he gave up the most runs. It wasn't until he cut down on the strikeouts that his home run numbers improved considerably. Perhaps that is just luck, but pitching coach Dave Eiland did attribute his success to a mid-season adjustment where he tried to induce poor contact on pop-ups by driving the ball up in the zone.
"I've been working with him and he's been working really hard to not be so quick through his balance point, stay back over the rubber a little bit longer to give his arm a chance to work and get up to the proper arm slot. We've been concentrating on pitching down in the zone, then going up when we want to go up, but going up above the belt. "My little catchphrase with him is that, 'We're going to stay down until we want to go up.'"
Back in August, I took a look at how Kennedy stacked up to this free agent class of pitchers. Again, here are all the starting pitchers that signed multi-year contracts last winter. I used Average Annual Value of the contract as a better reflection of the value of the contract, since Kennedy's deal and a few others are backloaded. The Wins Above Replacement (WAR) listed is an average between Fangraphs' version and Baseball-Reference's version. The last column is how much money each team is spending per WAR (in millions) for this year's services.
As you can see, the Royals spent $4.83 million per WAR for Kennedy last year, the fourth-best bargain among starting pitchers in last year's free agent class. J.A. Happ, a free agent signing that elicited either indifference or mockery, ended up being the best bargain, while Scott Kazmir, a pitcher that many in the analytics community pined for after a terrific 2015 season, ended up being one of the bigger busts.
Will this last for five years? It remains to be seen. There have already been rumors the Royals would like to dump Kennedy's deal onto someone else, which is understandable considering they'll owe him $62.5 million over the next four seasons, or over $16 million in each of the final three seasons. It seems unlikely that Ian Kennedy will live up to his salary in any of those seasons.
But for one year, at least, one of the seasons in which the Royals were aiming for a championship, Kennedy was quite the bargain.