Imagine it’s early 2008. Imagine you’re looking over the Yankees’ prized trio of Phil (no long Phillip) Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Patrick Kennedy. At the time, they were all had big time potential and we had the highest of hopes for them to front the Yankees’ rotation for a long, long time. Despite that collective good feeling, there was a bit of separation between the three. Now imagine that in that early 2008, I tell you that Ian Kennedy is the one who’d still be pitching in the Majors in 2019, with the other two as (relatively) distant memories. You’d be shocked. I’d be shocked at saying it. But it’s the truth.
Now in 2019, the Yankees are–as they are at most every trade deadline–looking to bolster their pitching. This applies mostly to the rotation, but we’ve heard they’re seeking bullpen help as well, and that’s where Kennedy fits in. This year, the Royals shifted him to the bullpen and the results have been pretty great.
As I write this on Wednesday night, Kennedy is sporting a 3.32 ERA (71 ERA-) and 2.26 FIP (50 FIP-) in 38 innings across 37 games. He’s striking out 28.9% of the batters he’s facing as well as walking only 5.7%. His Statcast rankings are also closer to ‘great’ than anything else:
Just about all of this represents a huge improvement over Kennedy’s previous performances. Let’s take a look, on a pitch-by-pitch basis, to see what’s behind this great change.
Before we look at gains, let’s acknowledge something he’s lost. This year, Kennedy has all but ditched his changeup, throwing only 11 all season. He’s also slightly lowered his curveball usage. In their stead, he’s relied on his cutter a bit more, increasing the pitch’s usage from 11.78% in 2018 to 14.61% this season. He’s also throwing his cutter faster this year, increasing its velocity from 88.24 MPH to 91.69 MPH. Similarly, as one would expect of a starter moving to the bullpen, his fastball has ticked up , too, from 92.5 MPH to 94.55 MPH. The three pitches also have something else in common: more whiffs.
Kennedy’s fastball has gone from a 15.92 whiff/swing% to 24.02 and his curve has gone from 20.99 to 28.30. Those are big increases! The same holds true with his out of zone chases via Statcast. The rate has increased more than 20% on his fastball, more than 15% on his curveball, and just over 6% on his cutter. His cutter’s overall whiff/swing% has dropped, but has compensated with a higher GB/BIP% than 2018: 42.86-60.00. Similarly, his fastball has generated more grounders: 18.72% in 2018 to 34.48 in 2019. Predictably, the same holds true for his curveball: 46.05 to 53.85. It’s possible we can trace this to some other changes. His pitches are moving more and his release point is different.
|Pitch/Movement||2018 Horizontal/Vertical||2019 Horizontal/Vertical|
One way or another, his two moving pitches are moving more than they did in the past and it’s helping them be more effective in missing bats.
Now let’s look at the release points, 2018 first:
And now 2019:
Kennedy’s release point is clearly lower this year than it was last year. I’m not an expert on mechanics or anything, but that is clearly having some effect on his pitches and their effectiveness.
While it’s tempting to write off Kennedy’s 2019 as an outlier or a fluke because it’s so different than his 2018 and his mostly middling career, there is evidence that this is all real. Both his pitching process–pitch selection, release points, movement–and results–more whiffs, more grounders–show that something has changed in Kennedy and, baseball wise, he’s probably worth a look.
Given the more luxury tax conscious Yankees, we do have to take a look at Kennedy’s contract. He’s under contract for 2019 and 2020, both at $16.5M. For luxury tax purposes, he counts as $14M, the AAV of his 5 year, $70M contract. That doesn’t matter as much for 2019 since the Yankees are already over the threshold. They’ve got, per Cots, $36.55M to play with before hitting the threshold next year. At $14M, Kennedy would eat up almost 40% of that, which might scare the Yankees off, unless they plan on blowing by the threshold again. If you’ve read me in the past on this issue, you know I don’t care about saving the Steinbrenner family money, so that’s of no import to me. Now, I’m not going to propose a trade because that is way beyond my depth, but, as always, the Yankees–should they offer–should take on as much money as possible to lower the prospect cost.
The chances of this happening are incredibly slim and this might be a bit of wishing. I always liked Kennedy more than others and was sad to see him go. Considering how much ire there was towards him for not throwing himself on the fire after a bad game against the Angels, it’d be nice to see him ‘come home’ and contribute to a Yankee run at the playoffs. Bring IPK home, Cash. Bring him home.