Coming into this 2018 season, if you would ask Kansas City Royals fans what they would like to see from Ian Kennedy most would answer something along the lines of what he did for Kansas City back in 2016. Kennedy spent most of last year dealing with a right hamstring strain and never got quite back on track after putting together a solid April.
Now Kennedy is healthy and once again putting up strong April and May numbers. So far in seven starts, Kennedy has thrown 37 innings, producing a 2.92 ERA, 3.47 FIP and 0.8 fWAR (which is halfway to his 2016 total). But when we dive deeper into the numbers, they show he has actually been more than just a solid performer.
Let’s start with some of the statistics he can actually control, like walks and strike outs. Kennedy’s strike outs are about on par with what he has done in the past, sitting at 21.7%. Over the last five seasons, his K rate has been in the 20-24.5% range.
His walk rate actually shows some improvement, at 6.8%. If he was able to maintain this rate moving forward, that would put him above average on his walks for the first time since 2015. In fact, most of Kennedy’s better seasons have been when he’s been able to keep his walk rate in the 6-7% range.
His pitch selection is about the same as in the past, with a few modifications. Kennedy is throwing his fastball, cutter and sinker about the same amount, but so far this year he is throwing the curveball a bit less (13.7%) and throwing his change-up a bit more (12.2%). In fact his usage this season has been very similar to what he did in 2016 but one does wonder how he would do if he would not only throw his change-up more but also throw it a bit slower.
Kennedy put together a career year back in 2011 in Arizona and if you look at his pitch selection back then, he threw the change-up 15.6% of the time. He would continue to throw that pitch more and more the next few years, but his velocity also continued to rise with it, going from averaging 81.8 MPH to 86.4 MPH this year.
I’m not saying him using the pitch more and slowing it down would improve his numbers, but one has to wonder since 2014 is the closest he has come to that mark and even then he was throwing his change-up more than he has the last four seasons.
With that being said, the numbers that really speak to me are his Win Probability numbers. Kennedy currently sits at 0.55 WPA and 6.01 RE24, both numbers that rank him in the top 21 of qualified pitchers in the American League. He is not posting the elite numbers that Justin Verlander or Corey Kluber are putting up, but Jake Junis is the only other Royals pitcher close to these numbers and in fact the two of them are very similar in that regard.
I’m a big proponent of Win Probability and RE24 and tend to believe if you really want to look at the value a player is bringing to his team you look at these two numbers. So far Kennedy has helped put the Royals in situations to win and his performance has helped the team way more than hurt it.
But for all the good he has done, there are some concerns as well:
The main concerns would be the higher hard hit rate, exit velocity and barrel %. All are noticeably up from the last two years and all are signs of batters getting a good read on his pitches. With that being said, there are some positives sprinkled in here as well.
From the chart it looks like the hitters launch angle against him has gone down, which coincides with his HR/FB rate this year. That rate is down to 9.8%, the lowest it has been since 2014. We all know Kennedy gives up home runs but this year it is at a lower rate. One reason could be the weather so far this year; as temperatures rise it only makes sense that he will give up more bombs.
Another reason could be what hitters are doing when making contact against Kennedy. His flyball rate currently sits at 36.3%, , which you have to go back to 2015 to find the last time it was below 40%. Also, the contact rate against him has gone up, currently at 83.3%, up from 80.3% in 2017. Hitters are swinging at more of his pitches this year (48.4%) and more importantly, swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone, as his o-contact rate is at 74%, up from 65% last year and 68% in 2016.
So while Kennedy is allowing more contact, how he is doing it is more interesting. Kennedy is known as a flyball pitcher, but balls hit in the air are down and balls hit on the ground are down as well (33.6%). From the numbers it appears that he has given up more line drives this year, in fact almost doubling his percentage from last year, 16.3 to 30.1%. This would explain the hard hit rate seeing an increase and also why the home run to flyball ratio is down as well.
So is all this sustainable? I still maintain that we will see more home runs hit off of Kennedy as the season progresses. He is what he is and history has shown us that 2014 (where he gave up only 16 home runs all season) feels like an outlier when it comes to dingers hit off of him.
But if hitters continue to swing at pitches outside the strike zone 33% of the time, he has a chance of keeping up most of his current pace. Combine that with the lower walk total and he should be able to minimize the damage when the home runs finally come.
After 12 years in the league it feels like you can get a pretty clear picture of what to expect from a pitcher like Kennedy. But the ability to adjust can be a vital part to any players progression. It’s been nice to see that so far from a pitcher that is entering the latter half of his career.