When the Royals signed Ian Kennedy last winter to a five-year, $70 million deal, it was panned quite a bit by writers. Fans were not much more hospitable. Kennedy was coming off an underwhelming ERA the last few years in San Diego, moving to a more difficult ballpark, in a more difficult league, going into his 30s.
But a funny thing happened over the first year of the deal, at least - it is all kind of working. Kennedy, long known as a fly-ball pitcher, is pitching well in the spacious confines of Kauffman Stadium. In fact, he has been one of the best bargains out of the free agent starting pitching class of last winter.
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 some of the deals 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. I did omit Kenta Maeda, a Japanese free-agent who signed an eight-year deal with the Dodgers because of the difficulty accounting for how much of his contract is guaranteed, plus the posting fee.
Oh boy, Chris Young has been bad. The Tigers have also gotten pretty lousy value out of Mike Pelfrey, which was pretty predictable considering his track record. Scott Kazmir was a popular target last winter, especially when he signed a very reasonable contract with the Dodgers, but he has been less than effective overall. Jordan Zimmermann got off to a great start, but tailed off quickly and has been out for the last month.
On the other side, J.A. Happ has proved to be quite a bargain, pitching his way into the Cy Young Award conversation. Many thought his contract was an overpay at the time, but the 33-year old lefty has flourished in Toronto. The Jays have also gotten great value out of Marco Estrada, who they re-signed to a cheap deal at the outset of free agency. Former Royals pitcher Johnny Cueto has bounced back from his poor August and September in Kansas City to be in the Cy Young race in the National League.
Then there is Ian Kennedy. It was just a month ago there were rumors the Royals were looking to dump him off on the Dodgers. Since then, Kennedy has been fantastic, giving up just four runs in five August starts for a 1.11 ERA. He has struck out hitters all year, but in the last month his home run rate has plummeted, from 1.93 per-nine-innings to 0.56 in August. This has happened despite the fact he is allowing a higher fly-ball rate in August, going from 46.7% to 52.3%.
Some of that may be just dumb luck, but Eno Sarris at ESPN points out that Kennedy is inducing a higher pop-up rate, due to to a concerted effort to throw his four-seam fastball up in the zone.
Last season, Kennedy threw 23.9 percent of his four-seam fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone or higher. That number is now 27.8 percent. That might not seem like a big shift, but it has made him the starting pitcher third-most likely to throw a high fastball.
It has resulted in him having the eighth-highest pop-up rate in baseball, which translates into a lot of easy outs. Pitching coach Dave Eiland explains further.
"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.'"
The adjustment has made all the difference in the world. Ian Kennedy is fitting in perfectly at Kauffman Stadium, where he has a 3.05 ERA this year. His 47.9% fly-ball rate, fifth-highest in the league, is perfectly suited for the defense behind him. The Ian Kennedy deal was largely panned, and perhaps for good reason as there is no guarantee he will be good for the complete five seasons of the deal. But through almost the entire first year of the deal, Kennedy has been one of the best bargains from last year's free agent class.