KC Royals general manager Dayton Moore signed Ian Kennedy to a five-year, $70 million contract last winter. After a rough patch, Moore is getting exactly what he paid for in Ian Kennedy.
Moore and the Kansas City Royals were widely criticized for the Ian Kennedy signing around baseball. Many analysts thought Kansas City overpaid for a guy who was a mid-rotation pitcher at his best. Since the 31-year-old Kennedy was coming off a rough season with a 4.28 ERA in San Diego, many pundits saw Kennedy as a bottom-of-the-rotation pitcher.
After a strong start that saw Kennedy post a 3.03 ERA through the first two months of the season, opponents bombed Kennedy with 18 home runs and a 5.37 ERA in June and July. Kennedy’s season ERA zoomed to an awful 4.41 on July 25. At that point, his contract looked like such a terrible mistake that Fangraphs.com analyst Dave Cameron estimated on July 28 that Kennedy’s contract carried a negative value of around $30 million.
Get that? Cameron thought the KC Royals needed to pay another team $30 million to take Ian Kennedy.
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Cameron pointed out that pitchers who lived high in the strike zone like Ian Kennedy had been clobbered by the recent surge in home runs across major-league baseball. And, yes, Ian Kennedy has given up a staggering 28 home runs in 2016 with around six weeks remaining in the season. But, then something unexpected happened: Ian Kennedy adjusted.
Just when Kansas City Royals fans began to cringe when he took the mound, Kennedy has reeled off four straight dominant starts. Kennedy has logged 26.0 innings pitched in his last four games, holding opponents to a minuscule 1.04 ERA while striking out 22. After giving up 26 home runs in his first 22 starts (and 18 in 11 starts in June and July), Kennedy has allowed only two home runs in four games.
Now, Ian Kennedy’s season numbers are looking quite respectable at a 3.78 ERA with an 8.9 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9. His adjusted ERA (ERA+) is a solid 116 (16% better than a league average pitcher) and Baseball-Reference estimates that he’s been worth 2.3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) with six more weeks left in the season.
Suddenly, Ian Kennedy is looking like a mid-rotation pitcher despite a current environment that is a nightmare for him. His contract no longer looks like a disaster, and Kennedy has been part of a resurgence from the KC Royals starting rotation behind Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura.
The only downside right now is that Fangraphs.com still remains unimpressed by Ian Kennedy, due to his high 4.95 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and 4.51 xFIP (adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching). According to those estimators, Kennedy has gotten lucky with hit sequencing and allowed far less runs than you’d expect from a guy that gives up 1.8 HR/9. Of course, Fangraphs.com’s metrics presume that the pitcher has no control over when he gives up a home run, discounting the idea that Kennedy might attack the strike zone more aggressively with the bases empty.
However, if Ian Kennedy finishes the season like he started it, no one is going to care about how many runs he should have given up.