Kennedy: Feckless Youth?

Like most Americans of our generation, we remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we got the news about Kennedy. It seems like just yesterday. In fact, though, it was last week, and we were sitting at our computers, as usual, staring at baseball numbers, as usual. We froze with horror and disbelief as we saw that Ian Kennedy had pitched 3 2/3 innings, allowing 9 baserunners and 7 earned runs. Actually, now that we brood about it, that may instead have been May 17, when we were sitting at our computers, as usual, staring at baseball numbers, as usual. We froze with horror and disbelief as we saw that Kennedy had pitched 5 innings and given up 6 earned runs. Or, we wonder, as the mystic chords of memory begin to chime like Peter Buck’s guitar, was it instead May 12, when we distinctly recall freezing with horror and disbelief as we saw that Kennedy had pitched 4 2/3 innings, let 11 guys reach base, and surrendered 5 earned runs? No, wait—it might, after all, have been April 25, when Kennedy pitched 4 1/3 innings, with 9 baserunners and 8 earned runs the outcome, and we froze with horror and disbelief.

All right: there’s been a lot of bad pitching, a lot of freezing, and a concomitant amount of defrosting. We drafted Ian Kennedy in both our NFBC leagues, and while it would be uncharitable to accuse us of having boasted about it both times, we see, reviewing in tranquility what we wrote then, that we were perhaps a touch too pleased with ourselves. As we confided to you back then, Kennedy “gets over a strikeout an inning, calls Petco home, has the 25th best arsenal in MLB, including an improving ‘knuckle curve,’ is a flyball pitcher who gives up less than one home run every 9 innings, and is pretty much a lock for 200 innings.” We are comforted a bit by the knowledge that we weren’t alone in our enthusiasm. One of our Fangraphs colleagues predicted before the season that Kennedy would produce more than 4 WAR, noting that a change in Kennedy’s delivery had helped him (Kennedy for sure, and maybe the Fangraphs guy as well) add 2 ½ MPH to his fastball since 2012, and that Kennedy had been throwing his curve with more vertical movement than ever before.

But here it is June 4th, and Kennedy’s got an ERA of 6.60 and FIP of 5.84. He’s had four Quality Starts, including one the other night against the Mets, but also four Declasse Starts, which we define, with neurosurgical precision, as starts after which your other starter that day needs to pitch a complete-game shutout just to bring you back to league average. So we’re forced to ask: Is Ian Kennedy a Muscular Boy? (See our post of April 29th for a full explanation of this term. Essentially, we’re asking whether you should dump him if you need a roster spot.)

At first, it looks like the answer is no—you should hang on to him. He had, really, just a bad month, and he’s had those before (though never a month that bad) and come back. While Kennedy’s walk rate is a bit elevated, he’s still missing plenty of bats for the right reasons (9.0 K/9 IP). His 22.7 K% and 14.7 K-BB% are both better than league average and in line with his career norms. His batted-ball mix resembles that of his very good 2014 season, with increases in GB/FB% compared to earlier years, and he’s inducing more soft contact and permitting less hard contact than in any season but his career year of 2011. His fastball velocity is down a touch, but not enough to have doubled his ERA; his first pitch strike rate is down, but still above league average; and his swinging strike rate of 11.1% is in the top 20 among all starting pitchers. True, a lot more of his pitches are being pulled, and when they’re hit hard, they’re clearing fences. Even so, the ESPN Home Run Tracker reveals that the homers hit off Kennedy aren’t traveling especially far, and you can argue that he’s been unlucky in that regard.

So stay the course, right? The guy can still pitch, and, having suffered with him through the bad times, you want him on your team when he turns it around. But there’s a big blot in Kennedy’s copybook that we can’t find a way to erase: he’s being destroyed by left-handed hitters this season. That’s “destroyed,” as in a slash line of .297/.366/.637. Nor can this be dismissed as an aberration. His struggles with lefties compromised his stats in 2012 and 2013; 2014 was a big year for him because he figured out—permanently, we thought, as a result of his knuckle curve, vertical movement, change of delivery, change of address, whatever—how to handle them. Evidently not.

So we’re disinclined to attribute his bad HR/FB rate to bad luck. We suspect it means that his old problems with left-handed hitters have returned with a vengeance–or anyway, that they’re really miffed and aren’t going to invite him to their birthday party–and we fear that he will continue to surrender home runs to them by the bushelful. He’ll still get you lots of strikeouts, but we envision an ERA above 4 and a WHIP well above 1.30. If you’ve got room on your reserve roster and your league lets you spot Kennedy against right-hand-heavy lineups—in the NL West, that means Arizona—then you might as well hang on to him. Maybe even use him at home against teams (like the Mets) that have some left-handed hitters but still can’t hit righties, and hold your breath, as we did on Tuesday, when Lucas Duda is batting. We haven’t jettisoned Kennedy yet, but our roster has more dead space than Philharmonic Hall before they remodeled it, so we don’t need to. Otherwise, with great bitterness but with greater sorrow, we hereby designate Ian Kennedy a Muscular Boy. Go ahead and stream left-handed hitters against him once he’s gone.

In due course—around the end of June—we’ll issue the full first-half autopsy results for our NFBC teams. Next week, though, we hope to have a definitive report on the Muscular Boyness of a member of the Birchwood Brothers Murderers’ Row: the inscrutable Melky Cabrera.

We hoped you liked reading Kennedy: Feckless Youth? by The Birchwood Brothers!

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The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.

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This may as well be my team’s eulogy (says he who also drafted Cobb, Paxton, and McCarthy).