In the 2014 offseason, the Padres imported a boatload of talent to repair their many deficiencies. Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Justin Upton would fortify the outfield; Will Middlebrooks would man the hot corner; and Derek Norris would play behind the plate. Bringing in all of these players, the team hoped that it would score more runs than it had in the pitiful years before.
One thing that the Padres left mostly the same: the starting rotation. Aside from inking James Shields to a four-year deal, the club counted on repeat performances from Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, and Ian Kennedy — all of whom shined in 2014 to varying degrees. The former two players have encountered some problems in 2015, but for the first half of the season, the latter looked to have bottomed out completely. Lately, though, he's turned things back around, reviving hope for a sizable contract in the offseason.
Inconsistency has defined Kennedy's career. The Diamondbacks traded for him in the three-team Curtis Granderson deal following the 2009 season. For Arizona, he sandwiched mediocre 2010 and 2012 campaigns around a superb 2011. After he pitched horribly to begin 2013, the team dumped him off on the Padres, where he mostly did the same. While he always punched out a respectable amount of batters, inconsistent control — especially in that last year — and a vulnerability to long balls kept him down.
2014 saw him blossom into a potentially great pitcher. He reached a new high in strikeout rate, at 24.5 percent, and maintained a solid 8.3 percent walk rate. Most importantly, he used Petco Park to his advantage, giving up round trippers to 1.9 percent of the hitters he faced — a career best. As the Friars prepared for a playoff run, they would need him to replicate his 3.63 ERA and 3.21 FIP.
At first, that really didn't seem to happen. Quite the contrary, actually: Heading into the All-Star break, Kennedy's ERA and FIP sat at a pathetic 4.91 and 5.53, respectively. Although he had kept his walk rate at a low 7.2 percent, his strikeout rate had regressed to 21.2 percent, around his career norm. The area where he'd dominated before came crashing down (or up depending on your view) — he posted a 5.6 percent home run rate. Even most Rockies pitchers don't let the ball leave the yard that often; for someone on the Padres to do it is just unacceptable. Kennedy's team struggled around him, and he bore a sizable amount of the blame for it.
The Padres' early-season hardships have, to some extent, gone away. They've played to a 27-29 record since the Midsummer Classic after limping their way to a 41-49 mark in the months before it. Kennedy hasn't just become average, though — he's pitched closer to what he did last year, with a 3.49 second-half ERA to go along with a 3.71 FIP. As the bases on balls have held steady at 8.2 percent, the strikeouts have stormed back: He's fanned 27.3 percent of the men to bat against him. (For comparison, Cy Young candidate Jake Arrieta has put up the exact same clip in that span.) When batters have managed to hit off him, they haven't knocked too many home runs; his 3.2 percent rate of those, along with the strikeouts, makes him a viable major-league starter again.
Oftentimes, hurlers will encounter problems when they have mechanical irregularities. This ailment afflicted Kennedy early on:
[Pitching coach Darren Balsley] believes he has identified a mechanical fix that will help correct inconsistent arm slots that had Kennedy "pushing" some balls and "yanking" others, as the Padres’ flummoxed pitcher described in Thursday’s postgame assessment.
Kennedy's game-by-game release points certainly bear this out:
At first, Kennedy seemingly couldn't find the right location from which to throw, which understandably held him back. Balsley appears to have resolved that, causing a much smoother trend of vertical releases in recent games.
The above graph illustrates the particular volatility of the changeup. In the first half — when it seemed like every other pitch Kennedy threw went over the fence — he relied on that pitch fairly often, especially to put hitters away. He's since strayed from that approach:
Despite a top-notch 19.4 percent whiff rate, the changeup resulted in a home run far too often (2.6 percent of its appearances) to justify its heavier usage in key moments. Interestingly, he didn't do this in 2014 — after cornering hitters at two strikes in that season, he implemented the changeup 15.1 percent of the time, as he's done in the second half of 2015. In other words, Kennedy messed with success early on; once he found that that only led to trouble, he returned to his trusted formula.
The four-seam fastball, which has become Kennedy's out pitch to a greater extent, doesn't create as many swinging strikes as does the changeup. It's nevertheless improved after the All-Star break, as its whiff rate has risen from 9.3 to 10.4 percent. That coincides with more concentration high in the zone:
It becomes even more pronounced after two strikes enter the count:
Kennedy's high four-seamers have always blown past hitters, a trend that he's sustained this year. As the aforementioned piece noted, however, Kennedy couldn't quite command it, which accounted for many of his shortcomings. In several second-half starts, Kennedy has cited fastball command as a significant factor in his triumph, so he seems to have moved past that.
It's important to note the role that misfortune played in Kennedy's first-half woes. Realistically, no pitcher will see 20 percent of his fly balls become home runs, especially when that pitcher's fly balls travel an average of only 280.7 feet (Kennedy's pre-All Star break mark). At that point, some regression seemed inevitable. Still, he has changed in some noteworthy manners, which have returned him to the player San Diego thought they had before the season.
Like a few of his Padres teammates, Kennedy will hit the free-agent market once 2015 concludes. His output in the season's first half would have given the team reason enough to put him on waivers — which they did, although they later pulled him back. At this point, his future might have some hope left. GM A.J. Preller hasn't committed to anything, but this turnaround should at least warrant a qualifying offer and possibly a multi-year deal after Kennedy declines that. By resurrecting himself after an utter collapse, Kennedy has given himself a much better shot at a payday.
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An earlier version of this post misstated the Padres' second-half record as 28-28.
All data as of Wednesday, September 16th.