Before the opening day games kicked off, I sent out the following light-hearted tweet, asking whether Rockies' starter Kyle Kendrick was the worst opening day starting pitcher of 2015. If I'm being totally honest, it wasn't really a question, rather a statement formed as one to soften the blow.
Kyle Kendrick the worst opening day starter this season? Think of the children, #Rockies.— Matt Jackson (@jacksontaigu) April 6, 2015
Starting pitching has been tough to come by in Colorado. Despite MLB's efforts to reign in Coors Field, last season it had a league leading park factor for runs — 30% higher than the next closest, Chase Field. While, yes, both teams play the game on the same field, it's not hard to imagine that young pitchers who make roughly half their appearances at home may see their development hindered. Sure, there's Ubaldo Jimenez, but his 2010 season feels so surreal that I just Googled it to make sure wasn't a fever dream.
And good luck singing a free agent that isn't either a huge injury risk (ahem, Brett Anderson, ahem) or unwanted by 29 other teams. Enter Kyle Kendrick, the latter. The 8-year Phillies veteran's name did not flow from MLB Trade Rumors writer's fingertips between avoiding arbitration with Amaro Jr. in 2014 and with the Rockies in February of this year. While Kendrick was ranked 59th on Hardball Talk's free agent tracker (17th among starting pitchers!), he found himself behind pitchers like Chris Young, who settled for a one-year contract with the Royals this offseason and no guarantee of time in the rotation.
Of course, this does't mean that Kendrick is the big dog in the Rockies' rotation. That title rests with Jorge De La Rosa, who will start the Rockies' home opener this Friday. But opening day still means something, and the Rockies thought highly enough of Kendrick to give him that crown. Not too shabby for a pitcher who regularly allows 20+ HR a year.
So Kendrick got shelled, right? Nope! He went 7 strong innings in Milwaukee, scattering 7 hits while striking out 6 and staying clear of walks. How did he do it? Aside from pitching on the road. Seriously, how did the one pitcher I singled out as worst among his peers, the pitcher who had the sixth-worst FIP among qualified starters last season (aside: De La Rosa was 10th worst) throw one of the best games of his life?
In 2014, Kendrick — the bad Kendrick — relied primarily on his sinker (44.2%) and cutter (26.8%), while occasionally mixing in a splitter (18.7%) and curve (9.4%). Last night against the Brewers, Kendrick stayed away from his curve, throwing just one; he replaced it with splitters, particularly in strikeout situations. In 2014, Kendrick threw the pitch 25.1% of the time with 2 strikes, while last night 14 of his 26 splits (43.7%) were thrown in that situation. He and Nick Hundley may have noticed it diving about an inch more than usual and decide to lean on it more heavily while it was working.
You need look no further than the first batter Kendrick faced to see how he set up the split. Kendrick started the dangerous Carlos Gomez off with a sinker, which he holds with a two-seam fastball grip, for a called strike. He followed it up with another before wasting a slider to run the count to 1-2. That's when he brought out the split, burying one in the dirt that Gomez chased.
So it seems that Kendrick didn't do too much to change his approach last night; rather, he tweaked his pitch selection based on what was working that day. But hey, if you get named opening day starter, you probably should stick with what got you there. Even if "there" is Coors and you're a flyball pitcher.
Oh, and it was just one game. I probably should have led with that.
. . .
Matt Jackson is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacksontaigu.