KC Royals free-agent acquisition Ian Kennedy has enjoyed a strong start to his 2016 season. What is he doing different that has led to his early success?
Many analysts believed Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore significantly overpaid when he signed 31-year-old Ian Kennedy to a five-year, $70 million contract this past winter. I was among them. I thought the KC Royals had overpaid for a mid-rotation pitcher with a career adjusted OPS (OPS+) three percent worse than league average (97 OPS+).
Dave Cameron at Fangraphs.com was much more blunt, writing:
"“Royals throw money at an innings eater”"
As is usual the last couple of years, the Kansas City Royals keep doing Kansas City Royals things which end up working out better than anyone outside the building expected.
Looking at Ian Kennedy’s stat line, we can see a number of too-good-to-be-true results that will certainly regress to the mean. He’s stranded 100% of runners on base (the only earned run against him came on a solo home run by Houston’s Jose Altuve). His BABIP against is a mere .200 when league average hovers around .300. His home runs per nine innings (HR/9) is a career low 0.66.
But, Ian Kennedy is also missing a lot more bats through his first two games of 2016 than he has anytime in his career. Just take a look at his whiff percentage chart from Brooks Baseball:
Ian Kennedy is getting more swings-and-misses on all of his pitches with the exception of his cutter (which he’s largely junked so far in 2016). His whiff rate on his fourseam fastball has jumped to 12.64% in 2016 from 9.76% in 2015, the whiff rate on his curve is up t6.67% in 2016 from 12.21% in 2015, and the whiff rate on his change is a whopping 28.89% compared to 19.47% in 2015.
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Yeah, it’s only two games. Everyone knows Kennedy could still turn into a pumpkin. Just like Alex Rios did last season after smashing through the first week of 2015 with a .321/.345/.464 triple slash.
What’s interesting about Kennedy’s improved swing-and-miss rate is that we can attribute it to a change he’s made this season. Remember that part about junking his cutter? Kennedy is throwing his cut fastball only 4.61% of the time in 2016. That’s about half the use in his last three seasons. A pitcher changing his repertoire CAN yield changed results that you expect to continue over the long-term.
Simplifying a player’s pitch mix is the mark of KC Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland. The most famous example is turning around Luke Hochevar‘s career by getting him to focus on his three best offerings rather than using six different pitches. Could Eiland have done the something similar with Ian Kennedy?
Through Ian Kennedy’s first two games with the KC Royals, it certainly seems so. At the very least, it’s something to watch when he takes on the formidable Detroit lineup on Wednesday night.