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Ian Kennedy defied the odds in 2016

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Kennedy’s success completely belied his stuff and home run rate last season, and a repeat for 2017 will be tough.

New York Yankees v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Ian Kennedy’s signing last season was puzzling, to say the least. Over his previous four years, he had combined for a 4.61 RA9 and only 1.9 bWAR in 759 innings. His last season in San Diego saw him post a RA9 of 5.08, and he had the highest home run rate in the league among qualified starters while pitching in Petco Park. That was the product of a 17.2 percent HR/FB ratio, but when a pitcher is throwing a straight, sub-par fastball, that is more bad pitching than bad luck.

Last offseason, Kennedy was going into his age-31 season and could have been best described as a number-five starter. There just was not much for prospective buyers in free agency to like. The Padres even extended him a qualifying offer, much to my surprise. The team was likely hoping that he would decline it and get the draft pick. It was a risky move, because it seemed very likely that he would accept it, and $17.2 million was way too much to pay for a year of Kennedy’s services. I would have accepted it if I were him. Who was going to pay more for an aging, back-end starter with a qualifying offer attached to him?

But in perhaps the most surprising development of the last offseason, Kennedy signed a five-year, $70 million deal with the Royals, who forfeited a draft pick as part of the deal. Some analysts tried to rationalize the deal by stating that Kennedy would be reuniting with his old pitching coach, Dave Eiland, and he would be pitching in front of a strong defense in a pitcher-friendly park. Those reasons would have made sense if the deal were one or two years, not five.

The Royals were likely gambling that they could improve Kennedy enough that he would take the two-year opt out after 2017. Well, to the surprise of nearly everyone: so far, so good.

Last year, Kennedy had his best season since 2011. He had a 3.73 RA9 and 4.1 bWAR. So what changed? As Corinne Landrey pointed out at FanGraphs, not much. Kennedy’s Brooks Baseball page shows some differences in his pitch usage compared to the previous season, but nothing extreme.

Kennedy’s DRA did not like him as much as his run average. His 4.09 DRA was not that much higher than his RA9, but it was enough to lower his DRA-based WAR by over one win. As mentioned before, part of that is the good defense and pitcher-friendly park. Another factor in the higher DRA were his “Not In Play runs,” because his strikeout and walk rates were no better than roughly average. He also had a high strand rate, which generally has more to do with luck than skill.

To be blunt, Kennedy’s season was so strange. He had a 3.73 RA9, yet among qualified starters he had one of the highest home run rates in baseball, as well as one of the highest hard-hit rates. Hector Santiago also met those latter two criteria, and he had a 5.72 RA9 and was barely above replacement level. A pitcher is not supposed to be successful if hitters are crushing him.

Let’s take a look at some of the league’s most homer-prone pitchers in 2016.

Going... Going... Gone

Player HR9 WAR K% RA9
Player HR9 WAR K% RA9
James Shields 1.98 -1.1 16.4% 6.06
Jered Weaver 1.87 -0.7 13.4% 5.36
Josh Tomlin 1.86 1.6 16.3% 5.02
Drew Smyly 1.64 0 22.6% 5.29
Hector Santiago 1.63 0.9 18.3% 4.95
Brandon Finnegan 1.52 2.3 19.8% 4.50
Ian Kennedy 1.52 4.1 22.5% 3.73
R.A. Dickey 1.49 0.4 17.3% 5.16
Dan Straily 1.46 4.3 20.5% 3.77
Francisco Liriano 1.44 0.3 23.0% 5.41
Kevin Gausman 1.4 4.2 23.0% 3.82
Jake Odorizzi 1.39 3 21.5% 3.85
Mike Fiers 1.39 0.3 18.5% 4.76
Michael Pineda 1.38 1.2 27.4% 5.03
Jerad Eickhoff 1.37 3.5 20.6% 4.02
Wade Miley 1.36 0.1 19.3% 5.42
Jaime Garcia 1.36 0.8 20.2% 4.94
Danny Duffy 1.35 4.2 25.7% 3.57
Jason Hammel 1.35 1.1 20.8% 4.17
Chris Archer 1.34 1.8 27.4% 4.48
Ivan Nova 1.28 2 18.6% 4.50
Hisashi Iwakuma 1.27 2.6 17.6% 4.30
Jimmy Nelson 1.25 0.4 17.4% 5.43
Carlos Rodon 1.25 1.5 23.5% 4.47
Robbie Ray 1.24 0.7 28.1% 5.43
Collin McHugh 1.22 1.2 22.2% 4.50
Max Scherzer 1.22 6.2 31.5% 3.04
Doug Fister 1.2 0 14.8% 4.90
Justin Verlander 1.19 6.6 28.1% 3.21
Marco Estrada 1.18 3.4 22.80% 3.73
Baseball Reference Play Index

There were more successful pitchers here than I thought there would be. Dan Straily and Kevin Gausman look like Kennedy clones by this table, and Jerad Eickhoff is not too far off. Interestingly enough, teammate Danny Duffy is also on this list, and he broke out in 2016. The big difference, though, is that Duffy’s strikeout and walk rates were significantly better than Kennedy’s. In fact, his FIP was almost a full run better. The biggest standouts on the list are near the bottom, with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. Their excellent strikeout rates let them get away with giving up frequent long balls.

As Landrey stated in the aforementioned FanGraphs article, Kennedy is outstanding when he is keeping the ball in the park. Last year he had an eight-game stretch where his HR/9 plummeted to 0.53, and his ERA plummeted with it to 2.31. Of course, small sample size caveats apply, but that’s ace-level production. It is not exactly hardcore analysis to say that a pitcher is going to be worse when he is giving up home runs and better when he is not, but that is an extreme difference.

Given how hard he got hit last year, it is hard to conclude anything except that Kennedy got really lucky with his run average. He more or less looked like the same pitcher he has always been. The biggest problem is that straight, mediocre fastball of his, especially since none of his secondary offerings are good enough to keep hitters from sitting on it. Based on pure stuff alone, it is hard to see how he is not the same pitcher he was in 2015.

Steamer and ZiPS have Kennedy projected at about a 2 WAR season in 2017. PECOTA is much more bearish on Kennedy, projecting him at a terrible 5.62 DRA and 0.5 WARP. The fact of the matter is that it is extremely difficult to sustain success being as homer-prone and hard-hit as Kennedy was, at least without the high strikeout rates to make up for it. The fact that he got extremely lucky in 2016 doesn’t change that.

The 2017 season will be pivotal for Kennedy and the Royals. If he is not at least a league-average pitcher, he will likely forgo his opt-out, leaving the Royals saddled with the $49 million left on his contract. That could be a burden if the team starts a rebuild. The Royals took on a lot of risk giving Kennedy this contract, and this upcoming season, it will either make them look like geniuses or blow up in their faces.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.