Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Give Kennedy Time

In response to some comments on a previous post, I'd like to talk about Ian Kennedy, the third Musketeer in the Hughes/Joba/Kennedy triumvirate. He has had a rough start to his season, with an 8.53 ERA, 0-2 record, an a horrible 17:15 BB:K ratio. Terrible numbers, to be sure. However, I think he's going to be just fine.

Kennedy's hallmark as a minor league pitcher was his impeccable command of his fastball. In 2007, his only full year in the minors, he posted the following numbers (spread across A+, AA, and AAA): 12-3 W-L, 146.1 innings, 1.91 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 6 HR allowed, 163 K, and 50 BB.

These are outstanding numbers, with consistent success at all three levels. He continued to do well at the major league level last year as well in a three game cameo at the end of the season (19 IP, 1.89 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 15 SO, 9 BB).

This year, his command has been awful, as evidenced by his 17:15 BB:K ratio. So what is his problem and is it going to persist?

Looking at the Pitchf/x data (using Josh Kalk's excellent Pitchf/x tool), I spotted a few interesting things about Ian's pitching. First, a little information about his fastball. The most obvious thing that jumps out at me is that his command of it isn't quite as bad as previously indicated. He has 55 balls and 105 strikes (23 of those strikes being in play outs and 8 being hits). His other three pitches are also mediocre; if you combine his curveball, slider, and change-up, he registers 43 balls and 73 strikes (17 in play outs and 5 hits, all singles). So overall, his control isn't horrible, but it's not good either.

He's having trouble missing bats with his fastball (3.125% swing and miss but is doing ok with his other pitches (a combined 16.4% swing and miss). He's not Tim Lincecum but he's not horrible either. So what is his problem?

He's getting behind too many batters early in the count and walking too many guys. 29 of his at bats have ended in a hitter's count (any of 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1, 3-2). 34 have ended in a pitcher's count (0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2). 11 have ended in a neutral count (0-0, 1-1). Clearly, he's not getting ahead of hitters with any regularity. Hitters do much better against Kennedy after reaching hitter's counts and much worse when put into pitchers' counts. This is true for pretty much all pitchers and hitters. It is called count leverage. And once the count gets to three balls and any number of strikes, guys are teeing off on him to the tune of an OPS well over 1.200.

About 26% of at-bats against him reach a 3 ball count. Compare that to Brian Bannister (who is a somewhat similar pitcher, having decent stuff but great command and control) who only has 12.7% of at-bats reach 3 ball counts. Clearly, Kennedy needs to be more aggressive in the strike zone early in the count.

So what's the diagnosis? I believe that Kennedy will make the necessary adjustments to succeed. He proved that he has the ability to throw quality strikes in the minors and there is little reason to believe that this suddenly deserted him. Plus, he's already throwing strikes now when he's behind in the count. His fastball tails in on right handers pretty well so he can be aggressive with it early in the count.

If he takes a page out of the book that Maddux bequeathed to Brian Bannister and uses count leverage to his advantage, he should be fine.


Adam said...

I just have to have an irrational dislike, if not hatred of at least one player on my favorite team. For a long time it was Juan Rivera, now it's Kennedy.

He's another right handed arm when we could use a quality left handed anything pitcher. If he were left-handed I'd probably give him a fairer shake.

He's just blah to me. Unless he starts getting ahead of batters, and winning games, he's going to have a hard time of it NY.

sanstodo said...

He is really, really young. He barely had over a year in the minors. The fact that he destroyed everything in his path in the minors basically left him with one option: take his lumps in the majors.

He's going to have his ups and downs but you gotta give him a chance. Juan Rivera was one thing. I hated Juan Rivera too. But Ian Kennedy could be a very good #3 for us for a long time.

Adam said...

I know, and I am pulling for him. He has the ill-fortune, some would say, of having to grow up in NY, the toughest mental test any big leaguer can face (except maybe for Boston).

I guess I just wish we had a Cole Hamels-like pitcher coming up through our system, or a Francisco Liriano. The Yankees need a better lefty arm in the starting rotation than Andy Pettite.

sanstodo said...

That would be nice. We do have some serious arms coming up (Brackman, Sanchez, et al.) though none quite in the league of a Kershaw. Not many teams do. Good lefties are hard to find. I think Cashman has been doing the right thing by stockpiling power arms. It should pay off in the end.

Adam said...

I love the youth movement that Cashman is implementing.

Now we need to get that into the everyday, position players.

A little worried about Cano and his slump, but he's been a historically slow starter and he'll get it back up. No reason to think he's lost his game.

sanstodo said...

Cano seems a little out of sync but he'll turn it around. No reason to worry.

Mooch said...

here's the thing I don't get about Kennedy, and your quoting of his minor league totals is the root of it: those numbers are phenomenal and include over a K per inning. How the hell is that a #3 starter? It's not, which means there is thought that he will not continue that kind of pitching success on the major league level, dropping him from an ace (which those minor league totals indicate) to a #3. What is the basis for that? It sounds like the only option is that we don't believe in his success in the minors, making a 'look at these numbers' argument for him pretty moot in my opinion.

sanstodo said...

His numbers indicate that he has the ability to dominate in the minors. This means that he has a pretty good probability of at least being a serviceable pitcher in the majors. The real knock on him is his lack of ace-type stuff. That's the only thing holding him back from being projected as more than a #3.

That said, his stuff projects as good enough to succeed in the majors. His statistics indicate control and command that is far, far above average and allow his relatively average stuff to play up. That's why I think you can put both parts of the puzzle together and project an above average major league pitcher who falls short of being a #1 or #2.

Adam said...

Agreed, he's a more than servicable Major League pitcher.

He has just enough giddy-up on his fastball and can locate it well enough to keep hitters honest.

Just wish he had better stuff :(