Fluke Watch Ian Kennedy

Ian Kennedy, prior to this year, seemed like a footnote on a major trade, the one that dealt Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson to Detroit and Curtis Granderson to the Yankees (and Edwin Jackson was involved of course). Kennedy seemed like an okay pitcher in real life, with a 4.33 FIP last year, but hardly someone for your fantasy roster. He didn’t strike out many batters, though his strikeout rate was solid, and he walked a little too many batters in 2010. Of course those numbers were a great improvement on his horrible stint with the Yankees in 2008.

And then this year happened: Kennedy now is 13-3 with a nice looking 3.17 ERA and a 3.54 FIP and 3.5 xFIP. How’s he done it?

Well he’s kept his K rate basically the same while dropping his walk rate by basically 25 percent, and dropped his home run rate a little too (though his groundball rate has practically stayed the same; he’s still a fly ball pitcher quite clearly). But is this improvement real? Lets look at his pitches to find out.

Kennedy’s pitches

Kennedy seems to throw four pitches: a fastball (he may throw more than one, it’s hard to tell, but the breakdown of fastballs has remained the same over the years), a change-up, a cutter/slider, and a curveball. The fastball has barely changed over Kennedy’s last three seasons (2008, 2010-2011), coming in at around 89-90 mph, with not much tailing action (but no cutting action) and a normal amount of rise for a four-seam fastball. It’s not a pitch that strikes one as likely to get really impressive results unless Kennedy shows amazing control.

The change-up comes in at 10 mph slower and has similar not-impressive horizontal movement. The pitch does have three less inches of rise than the fastball, giving it a minor sinking action, meaning that batters expecting the fastball who get the change-up not only will be swinging early, but probably a little over the top of the ball. Kennedy throws this pitch the same amount to lefties and righties, around 15 percent of the time.

Kennedy then has two breaking balls, a cutter/slider and a curveball. In 2008, neither of these pitches had good velocity and neither had super impressive movement (though the curve did have an impressive amount of sink.) Since coming back up to the majors in Arizona, Kennedy has found velocity on both of these pitches: the curveball’s is up to 77 mph on average from 73 in 2008, while the cutter/slider’s velocity has been at 85.6 this year, up from 83.3 last year and 81.8 the year before. The cutter/slider’s movement doesn’t stand out for a slider, but at 85.6 mph as a cutter, the pitch would seem pretty solid.

Now Kennedy’s usage of his pitches has changed a little bit from last year: Kennedy still relies a ton on his fastball, throwing it 60 percent of the time against both lefties and righties and he still throws the change-up a similar amount against both types of batters. Where he’s changed is in his usage of his breaking ball: Last year, Kennedy relied on his curveball as his primary breaking ball against both types of batters, with the slider/cutter barely being used. This year, Kennedy uses his curveball as his primary breaking ball against left-handed batters, while the slider is his primary pitch against Righties.

The results

Kennedy’s best pitch is his change-up, which gets swing-and-misses an amazing 20 percent of the time. And his slider and curve have improved this year into useful pitches (last year, they were not good pitches at all).

But the real improvement has come in Kennedy’s fastball. That fastball is being called for a ball only 29.2 percent of the time, down from 33.5 percent last year and 37.3 percent in 2008. And this change is very easily explainable: Kennedy is simply hitting the strike zone more often. Check out the numbers:
2008 Fastball strike zone% – 46.65.
2010 Fastball strike zone% – 51.21.
2011 Fastball strike zone% – 55.90.

Kennedy’s not aiming the pitch differently— he throws it away away away to both lefties and righties—but he’s been more able to get the pitch within the strike zone. And thus instead of batters taking these pitches for balls, they’re being forced to swing, and batters have been able only to foul off these extra pitches within the zone. Trading called balls for foul balls is a win for a pitcher in any scenario.

Conclusion

A few times in this column we’ve seen a walk rate improvement that’s pretty inexplicable, The pitchers were hitting the strike zone in the same frequency as before and getting called pitches for balls just as often, but just weren’t giving up the walks. Those pitchers’ walk rates we expect to regress.

But Kennedy isn’t one of those guys: His walk rate improvement is easily explainable, and if he can keep up this accuracy—which seems quite probable—then he can sustain it. You should not feel like Ian Kennedy is a heavy danger to regress too much.

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