Sometimes things are so inevitable that they will happen no matter the circumstances. For the last week plus we have heard about the Kansas City Royals interest in free agent righty Ian Kennedy and on Saturday morning they pulled the trigger on a 5 year, $70 million dollar deal.
The deal does have an opt out after year two(appears to be a player option) which would be after the 2017 season, where the Royals would already have Wade Davis, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar possibly eligible for free agency. This obviously means the Royals are taking advantage of the two year window in front of them and adding another arm to the rotation was at the top of the list for General Manager Dayton Moore. There are a number of immediate questions about Kennedy(as well as some positives), but first let’s give you an idea of just who Ian Kennedy really is.
Ian Kennedy is going into his 31 year old season as a former big time prospect in the New York Yankees organization who has toiled in the majors since 2007. His best season to date is the 2011 campaign, where he went 21-4 for the Diamondbacks, striking out 8.03 batters per 9, a 2.88 ERA, an ERA+ of 137 and 4.8 WAR. Unfortunately, that 2011 season seems to be the outlier of Kennedy’s career, as he has been a fairly mediocre starter throughout his time in the big leagues, including three straight seasons of being a below average pitcher from 2013-2015. That being said, there are plusses and minuses to the signing.
Let’s start with the giant pink elephant in the room: home runs. Last year, Kennedy gave up 31 home runs, 19 in his home field of Petco Park. Yes, the Petco park that is considered a major pitchers park. For whatever reason, balls flew out of that place at a higher rate last year, and Kennedy and former Padres teammate James Shields paid the price for the increase. In fact, Kennedy allowed home runs on 17% of his fly balls in 2015, only toppled by Shields and Kyle Kendrick, with a difference of only less than half of one percentage point. Yes, it appeared that balls flew out of Petco last year, but giving up that many home runs is still a blemish on the stat board and has to be taken into consideration. It appears that the Royals scouts and front office believe that playing in Kauffman Stadium, which has a low home run rate, plus adding in the Royals stellar defense in the outfield will help Kennedy with some of those fly balls. It’s possible…but as this chart shows, maybe not as much as we would hope:
What the graph shows is that if you took those 31 home runs and moved them to Kauffman, 3/4 of them would still leave the park. Add in that Kennedy won’t be starting all of his games in Kansas City, and…well, you can see why there is some worry.
Now, I feel like I can’t paint the ‘Ian Kennedy picture’ without mentioning some of the positives. For one, his K/9 rate the last has been above 8 for three straight seasons and has been sitting at a steady 9.3 for the last two. The guy has noticed an uptick in his velocity and it has shown in his strikeout numbers. But the increase in velocity has also accounted for a high hard-hit rate, which normally means a low soft-hit rate. In fact, Kennedy has not a hard-hit % below 30% since…you guessed it, that great 2011 season. In other words, when batters do make contact off of Kennedy, they are getting good wood on the ball. That makes it harder to keep the scoring down and also hurts the chances of a pitcher pitching deeper into the game. Last year, Kennedy averaged 5.6 innings per start, but over his career he has been a workhouse. Since 2010, the lowest amount of innings Kennedy has accumulated is 168 in 2015, while in that span he has had three seasons over 200 innings(and one at 194). So Kennedy will give you innings, which has long been a goal of Moore when he acquires starting pitchers.
Also, his walk rate went down this past year, down to 2.78 after hovering in the 3’s for the previous two years. So you have a guy who has increased his strikeout rate while lowering his walk rate, which is a plus for any starter in the majors. Kennedy also seemed to improve his statistics in June of last year, possibly due to a shift on the pitching rubber:
The picture on the left is from his last start, the one on the right is from his first start in June. As you can tell, he went from throwing on the 3rd base side of the rubber to the 1st base side. There was a noticeable improvement, as his home runs dipped down and his OPS allowed improved by almost 200 points. I’m sure all of this will be digested by Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland, who within himself is a big part of this puzzle. You see, Kennedy is not a stranger to Eiland:
Eiland was the pitching coach for the Yankees when Kennedy made it to the big leagues so Eiland is familiar with him not only from then but back when he had success during his days as a prospect in the New York system. One has to think a big part of Kansas City feeling so confident in giving him this big contract was having Eiland in their back pocket to guide him back to success. Eiland has shown over the years to have a knack of turning questionable pitchers into solid starters by just tweaking the most subtle of things. All you have to look at is Jeremy Guthrie time in Kansas City(before 2015) and most recently Edinson Volquez. If anyone can turn Kennedy around, it would be Eiland.
There is one more positive to the this signing, and that would be durability. Kennedy has been lucky so far in his career and hasn’t had a major arm injury. In fact, Kennedy spent a little bit of time on the disable list last year, but it was for a hamstring strain. Kennedy has been healthy enough to make at least 30 starts in all 6 of his seasons as a regular. Add in the innings totals and at the very least you have a starter that you can count on to take the mound once every five games. Anymore, that is a major victory within itself in this game.
So where do I stand? This is an odd signing in that I am not totally for sure how I feel. I like that the Royals seem to have signed a durable starter who can log some innings for the team before turning it over to the pen. There were times this past season where the starters went four or five innings and were done for the day. I’m not a big fan of a five year deal, but there is the opt out clause after year two, so hopefully Kennedy takes that and the Royals don’t get stuck with the last three years of the contract. For me it’s not even about Kennedy as much as I don’t like giving any pitcher a long-term deal, not with how easy it is to get arm injuries in this day and age. Over his career Kennedy has been about a league average pitcher and I have a feeling that is what Kansas City will get from him this year. I think there will be times he looks really good on the hill, and I think there will be times those hard hit fly balls will leave the playing field. Steamer projections are predicting Kennedy to make 31 starts, logging 182 innings with an ERA of 3.90, an FIP of 4.02 and 2.2 WAR. Honestly, I would take that and would even applaud that kind of season. The best part of the signing is that the Royals showed a willingness to spend money and give them as good a chance as any to keep a contending baseball team on the field. The last few years, Dayton Moore has shown an ability to make questionable acquisitions and have them turn to gold(paging Morales, Kendrys). At this point, if Dayton likes this move than I am on board. I just hope the ride isn’t too bumpy.