The KC Royals suffered much skepticism for signing pitcher Ian Kennedy to a five-year, $70 million deal with an opt out clause after two seasons.
For example, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs.com referred to the deal as “Royals throw money at an innings-eater” while rating it the third worst move of the 2015-16 off-season. Other analysts were hardly any kinder—including my initial take on the deal.
In the six weeks since signing Kennedy, I’ve come to a certain amount of peace with the deal. Part of it is the fan in me trying to come up with reasons why the signing could work out for the Kansas City Royals. But, I do think there are some solid reasons why the KC Royals front office put a higher value on Kennedy than most other teams.
First, Ian Kennedy’s velocity has increased the last two seasons from slightly over 89 mph between 2010 and 2012 to over 91 mph in 2014 and 2015. Not only is it unusual for a pitcher to throw harder at age 29 and 30 than he did from age 25 to 27, the increase provides a solid explanation for Kennedy’s increased strikeout rate from slightly over 20% in 2010 to 24.5% in 2014 and 24.4% in 2015. Ian Kennedy also paired his increased strikeout rate with better plate command last season. His walk rate dropped from 9.2% in 2013, to 8.3% in 2014, to 7.3% in 2015.
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Given Kennedy’s improvements over metrics pitchers can control, one might ask why has he earned less than 1.0 WAR two of the last three seasons. Part of the explanation involves an unsustainable 17.2% home run per fly ball rate in 2015. Another factor involves the Padres historically bad outfield defense in 2015 (Wil Meyers in centerfield!), which is particularly damaging to a fly ball pitcher like Kennedy.
Kennedy suffered through an awful first two months of the 2015 season, but his numbers bounced back to career norms after an early-season hamstring injury healed. As a result, the KC Royals front office has multiple good reasons to ignore Kennedy’s 4.28 ERA and 1.66 HR/9 in 2015.
Even so, Ian Kennedy’s career numbers suggest he’s more of a league-average pitcher rather than a top two guy on a good staff given his 3.98 career ERA and 3.93 xFIP.
The Kansas City Royals front office must be counting on their outstanding outfield defense plus the expansive outfield at Kauffman Stadium to boost Kennedy’s production. Remember that fly ball pitchers like Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas, and Chris Young all have performed significantly better than their immediately prior results after joining the KC Royals.
Consider, also, that James Shields‘ ERA spiked to 3.91, from 3.21 in KC the year before, in front of the same San Diego defense that hampered Ian Kennedy. If Kennedy can come close to Shields’ KC Royals performance in 2013 and 2014, then he’ll opt out of his deal and general manager Dayton Moore will receive kudos for another free-agency bargain a la Kendrys Morales, Chris Young, and Edinson Volquez.