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2016 Season Preview: Ian Kennedy

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Will Kennedy silence his critics?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The signing of Ian Kennedy brought a firestorm of criticism through the interwebs.  It wasn’t so much the annual average salary that brought so much angst, but the five-year commitment to a pitcher that lacks the consistency of Mike Leake or Wei-Yin Chen, veterans that inked similar deals this winter. While Kennedy is a more erratic than the glut of "Steady Eddies" that were on the free agent market, what he does have in common is that he is extremely durable.  Since becoming a fixture in the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010, he’s averaged 196 innings over a six year span, ranking him fourteenth in MLB.  The Royals put a premium on innings this winter, and he was the safest investment to make in that regard with hurlers within their budget.

Kennedy’s floor is a souped-up version of Jeremy Guthrie.  It’s worth noting that Guthrie ranked 21st on the innings leaderboard from 2010-2015.  Kennedy was once a blossoming Ace with the Diamondbacks.  In his second full season with Arizona he won 21 games in 222 innings while posting a shiny 2.88 ERA.  He has been hit or miss since, but did have 3.5 WAR as recently as 2014 with the Padres, according to Fangraphs.  The two years sandwiched outside of that season were not so pretty, and he failed to reach +1 WAR in either season. Serious bouts with gopheritis have limited his upside. He simply gets squared up way too often. He has allowed 102 dingers over the past four seasons, just 10 shy of what Jeremy Guthrie gave up over the same period. For our sake, let’s hope the comparisons end here?

A change of scenery that includes a well-respected pitching coach, an elite defense, and one of the best homer-suppressing parks might be just what the doctor ordered.  Here is what the projection systems are predicting for Kennedy in his debut season in Royal blue.

Ian Kennedy

ERA

FIP

IP

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

WAR

2015 season

4.28

4.51

168.1

9.3

2.8

1.66

0.8

2016 Steamer projection

3.86

4.17

185.0

7.9

2.9

1.18

1.9

2016 PECOTA projection

4.13

4.63

168.0

8.1

3.2

1.18

0.8

2016 ZIPS projection

4.80

4.64

160.0

7.9

3.1

1.47

0.8

The Royals likely feel confident he will eclipse the innings these systems are spitting out, as he has only logged under 180 innings once in his career. Despite averaging a little more than a strikeout-per-inning the previous two seasons, the projections are expecting major regression in that department. Why would that be the case? Kennedy throws a steady dose of fastballs, which generates a lot less whiffs than most breakers and off-speed pitches.  He also won't be facing pitchers regularly in the American League.

Working in his favor is that his fastball has 1 ½ inches more fade than average, which is a plus when fending off lefties.  It results in a well above average swinging strikes at 8%. Much like the majority of the Royals starting staff, he has higher vertical movement on his fastball.  It’s a philosophy that pitching coach Dave Eiland has seemed to buy into to induce more fly balls into the vacuum cleaners.  The extra inch of perceived rise must have been attractive to the front office when trying to find the right fit for the ballpark.  The velocity has remained stable if not a slight uptick lately.  It usually sits in the 90-92 range.

Kennedy usually has no problems getting that first strike, but his command of the pitch has been lacking. He need to be sure to keep it up to avoid further issues with the long ball

Slugging % Against Fastball from 2014-2015

Kennedy’s repertoire is not particularly suited to miss a lot of bats. His slider lacks the horizontal movement required for it to be a go-to punch out pitch against right-handers, which would explain his below-average whiff rate with it.  The shape is ordinary, but last season he did induce 70% ground balls with the pitch.  If he keeps it down it can still be effective, especially since it would work well off his fastball changing eye levels.

His change up, like his fastball is another pitch suited well for lefties with an extra inch of fade on it.  The 8 MPH separation from his fastball is just fine, but doesn’t get enough drop.  When hitters are expecting it, it can go a country mile.  He surrendered six homers with the off-speed offering last year.

The "x-factor" in his entire arsenal is his knuckle-curve. The pitch is nothing special in terms of whiffs, but it has really nice shape to it. It declined a little from 2014 to 2015, but still gets plus glove side run and 2-3 inches more drop, resulting in a career 52% ground ball rate with it.

The arsenal as a whole is a little underwhelming, but in his improved setting with slightly better command he could blow the projections out of the water. I’m not expecting the former first round pick to revert back to his 2011 season, where he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting, but an ERA under 3.75 while eating a lot of valuable innings is more than plausible.

What do you expect out of Ian Kennedy in 2016?