Chances are that when you woke up Saturday morning, one of the first things you saw when you managed to focus your groggy eyes on your phone was that Scott Boras clients Chris Davis and Ian Kennedy signed big deals overnight. Davis' deal wasn't dramatically different than expected. Kennedy's deal, on the other hand, was.
Before teams extended qualifying offers, it seemed like a coin flip whether Kennedy would receive one or head directly to free agency. When Kennedy was extended the offer, and he turned it down, it seemed as though he might go the route of now-teammate Kendrys Morales and sign only once the statute of limitations on the qualifying offer had expired. Now, with his name on a five-year, $70 million contract that just so happens to include an opt-out clause after the second year, the baseball world just can't help but wonder what in the world Dayton Moore was thinking.
Kennedy's career has been nothing if not enigmatic. After failing to launch in New York, Kennedy blossomed in Arizona, averaging 200 IP and 3.1 fWAR. Kennedy was also excellent in his first full season in San Diego, posting a 3.5 fWAR and setting the stage to get paid once he reached free agency after the following season.
Kennedy's season was emblematic of the Padres' disappointing 2015 campaign. It isn't hard to pinpoint his undoing, either. This wasn't death by a thousand paper cuts; Ian Kennedy was awful because he gave up 31 HR. His HR/FB percentage (17.6%) was a staggering fifth-worst among qualified starters over the last ten seasons and was more than enough to torch both his ERA (4.28) and FIP (4.51).
Aside from the home run issue, Kennedy ticks all the boxes that you would want in a free agent starting pitcher. Since he earned a full-time starting job with the Diamondbacks, Kennedy has averaged 32 starts and 195 innings a season. His velocity has even increased, with his four-seam fastball topping out above 92 MPH in his past two seasons. Kennedy also does well the two things over which he has the most control. Last season, he ranked 20th in the league with 17.1 percentage points more strikeouts than walks (K%-BB%). He was also ranked 20th in that stat the season before.
While it's tough to look past the gaudy home run totals, if you regress his HR/FB percentage to 10.5 percent Kennedy ranks as the 31st best starter in baseball last season by xFIP. But is this regression appropriate? Does it take too lightly the implications of giving up a generationally high HR/FB percentage?
At the top of the worst HR/FB rate season list sits Ervin Santana's train wreck of a 2012 season when, as an Angel, 18.9 percent (!!!) of his fly balls left the yard. The next year, he put up a more reasonable 12.4 pecent HR/FB. He just so happened to do that for the Royals after Dayton Moore plucked him to start behind James Shields in a pair of controversial moves that offseason. Over at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan looked at a larger sample of these pitchers and confirmed that pitchers who continue to be employed by major league teams tend to rebound from seasons similarly plague by home runs.
It's likely, given the Royals' experience with Santana, that the team projects a similar outcome to the one outlined above. Kennedy's HR/FB rate will regress toward his career average (which happens to be 10.7 percent, falling conveniently in line with xFIP assumptions). It's also likely that they are not the only club believing this, and they likely have considerably more information about the career trajectory of pitchers who see extreme home run spikes.
In another FanGraphs post, Tony Blengino discussed Ian Kennedy's propensity for hard contact and submits evidence that this has been a problem for Kennedy his entire career. He does, however, note that Kansas City would be a favorable destination based on the dimensions of the ballpark and the substantial upgrade in outfield defense that will benefit his fly-ball tendencies.
So Ian Kennedy has been, and has the potential to be in the future, a solid starter. For many, this was likely obscured by what was on the surface a disastrous season. Kennedy is now one of five pitchers with similar five-year deals. Looking at their careers, Kennedy falls somewhere in the middle. He has more miles on his arm, to be sure, but he also has as good an injury history as anyone on the list. He also has the highest career strikeout rate, one that is trending up, and the second-highest difference between strikeout and walk percentage. His career FIP, which includes the reckoning of 2015, is in the middle of the pack.
|Jordan Zimmermann (5/$110M)||29||1094.0||20.1%||4.9%||3.40||20.3|
|Jeff Samardzija (5/$90M)||30||991.2||21.5%||7.8%||3.84||12.4|
|Wei-Yin Chen (5/$80M)||30||706.2||18.5%||5.8%||4.14||9.5|
|Mike Leake (5/$80M)||28||1083.2||16.1%||6.1%||4.21||9.7|
|Ian Kennedy (5/$70M)||31||1234.2||21.8%||7.9%||3.99||14.4|
Looking at just last season, Kennedy is better than the other starters in many ways. He struck out the most batters by a wide margin and also had the highest difference between strikeout percentage and walks. He missed time at the beginning of the season with a minor hamstring pull but still made as many starts as Mike Leake. He lost out in terms of innings because of, well, all those homers.
|Jordan Zimmermann (5/$110M)||33||201.2||19.7%||4.7%||3.82||3.0|
|Jeff Samardzija (5/$90M)||32||214.0||17.9%||5.4%||4.31||2.7|
|Wei-Yin Chen (5/$80M)||31||191.1||19.3%||5.2%||4.01||2.8|
|Mike Leake (5/$80M)||30||192.0||15.3%||6.3%||3.93||1.7|
|Ian Kennedy (5/$70M)||30||168.1||24.4%||7.3%||3.70||0.8|
So Kennedy seems to deserve this contract given the company. Mike Leake may be a terrific hitter, but he's probably the worst pitcher of this group and likely enjoyed a boost as the only of the five not to cost their new club a draft pick. Even Kennedy's opt-out clause after the second year, which seemed ridiculous at first, has recent precedent after the Marlins gave one to Chen, who isn't nearly as accomplished as Kennedy and is also in his 30's.
The fact that Kennedy's contract is different from predicted contract values is irrelevant. Markets develop based on the needs of the 30 clubs in tandem with their own player valuations and budgetary constraints. Boras is good, but it's unlikely that Moore, when presented with Kennedy's next best offer, blurted, "We'll double it!"
It wouldn't have been surprising at all to see Kennedy accept this contract last offseason. So in the absence of a major injury or future injury red flag, why is the contract so surprising now?
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