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Ian Kennedy should be better in 2018 - but will it matter?

Can a bad deal become less bad?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In January of 2016, it was announced that the Royals had come to an agreement with RHP Ian Kennedy on a five year contract worth $70,000,000. In what was a bit of a surprising move, there were a number of different opinions on the signing. After the 2016 season, it would’ve been really hard to be upset with the contract. Maybe you didn’t love it, but it would’ve been hard to hate.

Kennedy ranked 30th among all qualified pitchers in Major League Baseball in ERA. He had the 26th best strikeouts-per-nine innings among qualified pitchers and the second-best left-on-base rate. He made all 33 of his scheduled starts and was merely 4 23 innings away from reaching the elusive 200 innings pitched mark. That’s exactly what the Royals were hoping to get from Ian Kennedy.

Then 2017 came and a new season had begun. Ian Kennedy was slated to start the second game of the season, and rightfully so. I, for one, was excited for Ian Kennedy’s 2017 season. If he and Duffy could be the 1-2 punch that they were in 2016, the Royals would have a shot at the playoffs together one last time. That did not even come close to happening.

It actually started off fairly well. Kennedy’s first start was less than ideal, but at the end of the month of April his ERA sat at 2.30 and Kennedy looked sharp. One start into May, however, things took a turn and never looked back. As we all know, Kennedy would experience leg injuries that robbed him of his 2017 season. He ended the season with a 5.38 ERA and the highest Hard Hit Percentage of any pitcher in baseball with at least 150 IP.

After last season it has became increasingly difficult to defend Kennedy’s contract. All of a sudden his deal became one of the worst contracts in all of baseball. The Royals paid Ian Kennedy $13.5M to be one of the worst pitchers in baseball in 2017. And people wonder why GMs are hesitant to hand out big contracts this offseason.

HOWEVER. Hope is not lost. No, I’m here to tell you today that Ian Kennedy will be better in 2018 than he was in 2017. While he will never be worth the contract, it’s going to look much better after this season. Here’s why:

Kennedy’s legs should be healed up and fresh, and he’s been relatively healthy throughout his career.

I think one thing that people tend to forget about Kennedy’s 2017 campaign were the injuries he sustained to his legs. While it’s obviously possible to pitch with certain leg injuries and discomforts, it can (maybe more obviously) make it incredibly difficult to pitch effectively.

I have a feeling that Kennedy gutted out the 2017 season for the Royals and sacrificed effectiveness in order to be on the mound. That’s what good competitors do. Kennedy has made at least 30 starts in every season since 2010 and I have no reason to believe he can’t do it again in 2018. If he makes his 30 starts and avoids lingering injuries, he should be able to use his bottom half much more efficiently in 2018 than he did in 2017.

Kennedy has never been as bad as he was in 2017, it’s an outlier, not a trend.

Ian Kennedy has posted an ERA over 3.80 just five times in his eleven year career. In the eight seasons he’s spent as a regular big leaguer, four of his eight seasons have ended with his ERA under 4.00. Only once has Kennedy’s ERA been over 5.00 for a full season, and that came last year during an injury riddled season. Ian Kennedy has not been a bad pitcher in his career. In fact, he’s been a pretty good one.

Ian Kennedy’s career ERA is 4.08, his career FIP is 4.23, and his career xFIP is 4.15. There is no reason to believe that he will be as bad as his 2017 statistics would indicate so long as he is healthy. Posting ERA’s of 3.63 and 3.68 in 2014 and 2016 respectively (4.28 in 2015, after he strained his left hamstring). I firmly believe that Kennedy is capable of pitching close to his career ERA in 2018. He’s shown throughout his career to be a durable, reliable starter, and you should bank on getting career ERA 4.08 Ian Kennedy in 2018.

Here’s the problem: will it matter?

Yu Darvish recently received a contract from the Cubs for 6 years and $126M, good for an average annual value (AAV) of $21M. Ian Kennedy’s current deal is good for an AAV of $14.2M. Kennedy is getting just over two-thirds of the AAV as Darvish for the next three years.

Over the course of their careers, Ian Kennedy is worth roughly 1.87 fWAR-per-32 starts. Yu Darvish is worth roughly 4.63 fWAR-per-32 starts. According to FanGraphs, Ian Kennedy is getting paid two-thirds of the money to do 40% of the job.

Ian Kennedy will never be worth the money that the Royals are paying him. That doesn’t mean he can’t still be effective. In 2015, the Royals starting rotation consisted mostly of Jeremy Guthrie, Johnny Cueto, Chris Young, Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura, and Edinson Volquez. Only three of those guys posted an ERA under 4.00 that year: Edinson Volquez in 200.1 IP, Chris Young in 123.1 IP, and Jason Vargas in 43 IP (Cueto’s ERA was well under 4.00 that year but it was north of that in his time with KC).

Of the names listed above, only Edinson Volquez was a starter for the entire season. That’s pretty remarkable, really. The Royals won a World Series with one starting pitcher possessing an ERA under 4.00 for the entire season (plus Cueto). Chris Young pitched admirably, but he only started 18 games (ERA of 3.06 in 34 combined appearances). Yordano Ventura was also worth more fWAR than Volquez that season, but his ERA was 4.08.

That core of six starters combined for 6.8 bWAR in 2015 (Fangraphs doesn’t split up Cueto’s WAR, Baseball Reference does). Jeremy Guthrie’s less than impressive -1.8 WAR really drags that number down, but he made 24 starts for the Royals that year so it’s hard to discount.

Over the last four seasons, Danny Duffy has averaged 3.1 bWAR/season. Jason Hammel has been worth 1.825 bWAR/season over the same amount of time. Over his last season and a half’s worth of injury riddled starts, Nate Karns is averaging 2.27 bWAR/season. Jake Junis was worth 1.3 bWAR in 2017 in half a season’s worth of starts. Ian Kennedy has averaged 2.25 bWAR/season in his time with the Royals. If you were to, theoretically, get those averages from those five SP’s over the course of the 2018 season, they would combine for 12 bWAR, easily eclipsing that 2015 World Series championship rotation.

Of course, that won’t happen. Jake Junis is not a three win pitcher (Steamer projects him for 1.4 WAR all season). Nate Karns can’t stay healthy long enough to post 2.27 WAR in a season. Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel are on the wrong side of 30 and Danny Duffy just had an operation on his elbow. This group probably won’t get close to 12 combined bWAR this season, but it can be effective nonetheless.

How effective will hinge mostly on the shoulders of Ian Kennedy. Danny Duffy has proven over the last four years that he can be an effective mainstay in the rotation. He’s going to be your Opening Day starter (barring injury or trade) and Kennedy will start game two right behind him. If the Royals are to be competitive in 2018 Ian Kennedy is going to have to be as good as he was in 2016. I think he gets close, and begins to make this contract look a little more moveable by the end of 2018.