Why Ian Kennedy Could Rebound With the Royals in 2016
Last offseason, the Kansas City Royals did most of their work in the free agency market by investing in players who had struggled in 2014. Whether it was Kendrys Morales or Alex Rios, they bought damaged goods and hoped they'd turn things around.
It seems to have worked out okay.
The Royals find themselves in a similar spot this year, inking former San Diego Padres pitcher Ian Kennedy to a monster five-year, $70 million deal. That's a whole lot of dough for a guy who had a 4.28 ERA the previous season.
That doesn't mean this signing comes without merit. Let's look into Kennedy's 2015 struggles to see if he could be just the next player to turn it around once he put on a Royals uniform.
The general reputation surrounding Petco Park -- where Kennedy played his home games all of 2014 and 2015 -- is that it is a heavy pitcher's park. While that's not entirely untrue, the park is trending the other direction, and Kennedy felt the full brunt of that last year.
After the 2012 season, the Padres decided to move the fences in so as to make the field a bit more dinger-friendly. It has paid off, as the table below shows, with 2013 being the first season with the new dimensions. The rankings are based on home run park factors, with smaller numbers reflecting a park that is more conducive to home runs.
|Season||Home Run Park Factor Rank|
Specific rankings like that are a bit sporadic year to year, but the general trend shows that more home runs were being hit in Petco after the change than before. That's bad news for a pitcher as fly-ball dependent as Kennedy.
The average ground-ball rate for starting pitchers last year was 45.2 percent; Kennedy's actually decreased from the previous season, down to only 38.5 percent. That was the 11th lowest mark among qualified starters.
When you combine Kennedy's aversion to ground balls and Petco Park's shift towards being more fly-ball friendly, it's easy to see why Kennedy's numbers would sag.
Why Kennedy Could Rebound in Kansas City
Even with the decreased luck with fly balls, Kennedy's numbers in 2015 still were far from perfect. His SIERA increased to 3.61 from 3.47 the previous year, and that accounts for things such as home run to fly-ball ratio. Why, then, should the Royals be making it rain fat stacks on a 31-year-old starter?
The answer would obviously be strikeouts.
Kennedy's 2015 season was his second consecutive with a strikeout rate above 24.0 percent. His mark of 24.4 percent was the 19th best in the league among qualified starters. Additionally, his 7.3 percent walk rate was right around the big-league average, so his peripherals were actually decent last year outside of the ground-ball rate.
This should help Kennedy post much better traditional stats with his new club. Kauffman Stadium has been 22nd, 22nd, and 25th, respectively, the past three years in home run park factor, minimizing the effects of Kennedy's fly-ball tendencies.
All of this is going to help Kennedy keep the ball in the park. It doesn't even account for the assistance he'll receive from the seven guys playing behind him.
The Royals are pretty well known for having the illest defense in the land, and the advanced stats back that up. They led the league last year in Fangraphs' Defensive Rating by a hefty margin. The Padres? They were 29th. Apparently that happens when you stick Matt Kemp in the outfield.
With all of these factors combined, it should be pretty clear that Kennedy's likely to have a better season this year than he did last. Does that mean he's worth the big contract, though? That would be an entirely different question.
Can Kennedy Be Worth the Contract?
The two big reasons listed for expecting Kennedy to improve were park factor and team defense. While that's great for Kennedy, those two things would work in favor of any pitcher the Royals decided to throw out there. That makes the $70 million a bit more difficult to swallow.
The Royals were able to win the World Series last year with a patchwork of starting pitchers that had the third worst collective SIERA in the entire league. None of their regular starters had a better SIERA than Kennedy did, meaning he appears to be an upgrade for the staff, but it's possible that he's an unnecessary upgrade.
It makes sense that the Royals would want to improve their rotation. If these guys had played for a team with a lesser defense, bullpen, or home park, things would have gone horribly wrong. However, if they can succeed with less talented starters, wouldn't it be more prudent to spend money elsewhere?
While in theory this would be the ideal situation, the market seems to have dictated that teams pay big if they want a mildly competent starting pitcher. Jeff Samardzija got five years and $80 million, as did Wei-Yin Chen. Both are a year younger than Kennedy, but both also had significantly higher SIERA's. Kennedy's contract isn't great by any means, but it's not quite the catastrophe many are making it out to be.
There is a non-zero chance that Kennedy -- with his new home park and defense -- finishes the season with an ERA below 3.50. He could push Yordano Ventura as the team's top starter with his strikeout abilities and average control. Is it the most likely scenario? Probably not. But it's certainly not entirely far-fetched.
With his surrounding conditions, Kennedy is in the best spot if he wants his numbers to rebound after a brutal season. Whether or not that actually happens remains to be seen. It's highly unlikely that Kennedy will end up living up to the money the Royals have given him here, but it's still possible that this marriage works out for both sides.