Ian Kennedy: Promise Lost?


Ian Kennedy walks off the field after the fourth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. IMAGE: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

What to do with Ian Kennedy?

Aside from the whole melee in Los Angeles this week, the guy is costing himself a lot of money with his 2013 performance. He’s currently rocking a 5.49 ERA over 78.2 innings this year and is averaging six innings per start. His strikeouts are down, his walks are way up and he’s been much more homerun prone than seasons past. We know that homeruns allowed are usually a volatile stat and can vary greatly from season to season, so perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on him about that. Or should we? Let’s look at what he’s doing wrong.

Looking at Kennedy’s Pitch F/X data, it appears his velocity is still there. During his stellar 2011 season, he averaged 89.9 mph on his fastball while he’s currently averaging 89.7 during 2013. That’s not a drop worthy of our attention. His other pitches appear to be on par with his past performance, so I think we can rule velocity out as a problem.

Location would be the next logical question area to examine. Pulling up Kennedy’s heat maps from 2011 and 2013, we can see some trends. First to the maps. Here’s his 2011 fastball locations:

And now for his 2013 fastball locations:

If we’re looking carefully, we can see that against lefties he’s catching a little more of the plate this year with his heater than in the past. He’s also elevating the fastball more and he’s not pitching at the knees. This might lead to some of his home run problems.

Against righties, he’s pretty similar with the exception that he’s been more wild. The 2013 heat map shows us that he’s all over the place with his fastball against righties, missing badly with frequency. That problem with location is resulting in his walks.

Now, I know that Kennedy throws more than just fastballs but pitching for most pitchers, Kennedy included, is predicated off of fastball location. Ian is a guy that needs to locate and throw the pitch for strikes in order to make his secondary stuff effective. He’s not someone who “pitches backwards” and can throw his slider or changeup 70% of the time. Pitch F/X values show that his fastball has been terrible this year and that’s the foundation for his lack of success on the mound.

Oh, and not all strikes are created equal. He needs to not only throw his heater for strikes but it’s also imperative that those are quality strikes on the edge of the zone, not balls grooved down the middle. Looking at hitters’ swing tendencies against IPK, you’ll notice that that while their chasing fastballs out of the zone at a similar rate to 2011, they are punishing fastballs in the zone at much higher rate (63.5% in 2011, 70.6% in 2013), resulting in that elevated ERA.

One final aspect I’d like to mention is Kennedy’s Left On Base (LOB) percentage. This is the rate at which base runners that relievers inherit from Kennedy are left stranded. In essence, it’s a reflection of how good of a job the bullpen is doing at keeping Kennedy’s runners from scoring. In 2011, 79.3% of all base runners inherited from Kennedy were left stranded by the bullpen and thus were not charged to Kennedy’s ERA. In 2013, that number is down to 66.8%, running his ERA up in the process. That could be a result of Kennedy exiting more innings this year with runners in scoring position in the past (let’s not forget that he’s been pretty bad), but the bullpen is not doing him any favors.

The control problems are causing walks and homeruns while simultaneously decreasing his strikeouts. You don’t need to be a world-class sabermetrician to understand that this is a recipe for disaster. It might be mechanical and it might be mental. Hell, it might be both at this point. Whatever it is, it needs to change in a hurry.

Kennedy is arbitration-eligible for the second time in his career this winter. He’s making $4.2 million this year and won’t be in line for a raise unless he turns things around in a big way. He’s also possibly the odd man out in a crowded situation of quality pitchers. Let’s not forget that Tyler Skaggs is going to need a permanent place in the rotation for 2014 and Archie Bradley will likely need one for 2015. Add to the mix up-and-comers David Holmberg, Andrew Chaffin, Jake Barrett and the recently drafted Braden Shipley and one can see that Kennedy needs to shape up in a hurry or he’ll be let go.

What at one time looked like a promising situation for years to come has quickly faded into something else altogether. After Kennedy and his agent, Scott Boras, reportedly snubbed the DBacks brass regarding an extension, it appears that the ship may have already sailed. I expect the Diamondbacks to offer him a low salary in arbitration this year and if he doesn’t accept, they may just let him walk. His trade value is non-existent and the days of IPK in a Diamondbacks uniform may quickly coming to an end.

*Heat Maps and stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com

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