Plenty has been made of Ian Kennedy’s contract. While never a good contract for the Royals, the 2016 season in which he posted an ERA of 3.68 in 195.2 IP gave one grounds to argue the deal was at least justifiable. Then the 2017 season happened. A season riddled with injuries and poor performances for Kennedy rendered his contract one of the worst in baseball.
Ian Kennedy’s contract will never be worth the money, but after last season it became completely immovable. That being said, as time passes and lessens the future burden to the team employing him, it could become movable at some point provided Kennedy is pitching well.
Luckily for the Royals, Kennedy is doing just that. After struggling a bit in the first innings of his first outing against the Chicago White Sox on March 31, Kennedy settled down and threw six quality innings allowing only one run while striking out five. Following up a quality start in his first outing, Kennedy went out and fired six scoreless innings against the first-place Cleveland Indians last Saturday afternoon in a 1-0 Royals win.
Just about everything worked for Kennedy on Saturday. He’s now allowed only one run in twelve innings of work in 2018, and the stuff is there to show for it. His fastball has life on it again. His curveball is back to being a sharp and effective offering.
Maybe most importantly, Kennedy’s changeup looks to be back, a pitch that he was robbed of last season while he was dealing with hamstring injuries.
For those of you who may not understand how important Ian Kennedy’s changeup is for him, allow for me to try to explain. Kennedy’s best two pitches are his fastball and his curveball. His fastball isn’t overpowering in terms of velocity, but Kennedy spins the ball roughly 100 times per minute faster than the average major leaguer, coming in as the second-fastest spin rate according to Statcast. This helps his fastball play up in terms of velocity. Kennedy’s fastball is about 1.5 MPH slower than league average but is perceived as being only 0.5 MPH slower because of his spin rate.
So what does this have to do with his changeup?
The goal for most pitchers when throwing a changeup is not to get strikeouts. The goal is usually to either induce weak contact or set the hitter up for another pitch. Some guys (Cole Hamels, James Shields, Fernando Rodney) can make a decent living throwing lots of fastballs and changeups, but it’s difficult. For Ian Kennedy, his changeup allows his fastball to play up even more in terms of perceived velocity—by showing the hitter a slower pitch—that spins like his fastball. The idea when throwing a changeup is that the hitter sees fastball, and then has to make a late adjustment when they realize that the pitch isn’t a fastball at all.
In Saturday’s game, there were a couple of big moments that Kennedy was able to wiggle out of thanks to his changeup. In the sixth inning, Francisco Lindor led off the inning with a double into left-center field. In a tie game, Jason Kipnis bunted the first pitch foul to fall behind 0-1. Kennedy fooled Kipnis badly before running the count to 1-2. Then Kennedy elevated a low-90’s fastball, to which Kipnis had no chance of catching up. Kipnis would probably normally make contact with a 91-MPH fastball up in the zone, but therein lies the best part about the changeup. It allows his fastball to play up in terms of perceived velocity after the hitter sees the changeup with a similar spin rate.
With one out and the go ahead run at second base, Kennedy jumped on Ramirez with a fastball called for a strike, then got Ramirez to whiff on another fastball up in the zone. Ramirez was the best hitter in the league last year with two strikes on him, so putting him away was not a sure thing. After Francisco Lindor swiped third with Kennedy and his infield asleep, Ramirez worked the count by fouling a few pitches off and laying off a very enticing breaking ball. Kennedy was finally able to finish him off with a changeup to strike him out. This was a huge development for Kennedy.
Last season, hamstring injuries prevented Kennedy from having the same life on his changeup that he normally gets. Unless you've ever pitched in a baseball game before, you may be confused as to how the two correlate. The most important part of the body for a pitcher are his legs. Pitchers get power from the ground, so their legs must be in elite physical shape in order to throw the ball hard. When Kennedy injured his hamstring, it didn’t prevent him from going forward, it prevented him from slowing down. That last part, the inability to slow down once he was moving forward, is what stripped him of his ability to throw a good changeup. Again, part of a good changeup is that it looks like a fastball to a hitter until it is too late. Pitchers must make their arms move at the same speed while throwing a changeup as they do when they are throwing a fastball, and rely on their grip and their legs to slow the ball down. This is how a hamstring injury can take away a changeup from a pitcher.
The return of Ian Kennedy’s good changeup, and maybe more importantly good Ian Kennedy, is a huge story for the Royals. As mentioned earlier in the article, Ian Kennedy’s contract is completely immovable if he isn’t pitching well. But if Kennedy can return to his 2016 form, he may become something of a trade asset for Kansas City. The Royals wouldn’t get much, if anything, in return, but at this point Dayton Moore and company would probably just be happy being rid of the contract. In any case, the Royals need Kennedy to be a rock in the rotation for the money they’re paying him, and thanks to the return of his changeup, Kennedy looks like he could do just that.
He’ll look to stay hot against the Los Angeles Angels tonight at 7:15 at Kauffman Stadium.