The Royals have added the last major piece of the 2015-2016 offseason in righty starter Ian Kennedy. The deal is for $70M over 5 years with an opt out after two. Although it’s not as large a contract as Alex Gordon signed a few weeks ago – $72M over 4 years – the Kennedy deal further buries Gil Meche‘s name on the Royals’ largest contracts list. Which should be celebrated.
This deal makes two things very clear: 1. Kansas City is going all in for 2016 and 2017, and 2. David Glass has been bitten by the Championship Bug and is suddenly not afraid to shell out some major dinero to stay competitive. At least over the next couple years.
So who is Ian Kennedy?
A quick glance at his stats suggests he’s an okay pitcher with a high upside when you put him in a spacious ballpark with the leagues best defense behind him. He’s had one truly great season (2011) and a few truly terrible seasons (2013, 2015). His 3.98 career ERA is whatever, but his 1.28 career WHIP and 8.31 career K/9 are both in the upper tier among active pitchers. He’s a flyball pitcher, so he has a tendency to give up home runs (he gave up 31 last year in San Diego), but we all expect that number to drop moving from Petco Park to Kauffman Stadium.
He’s what we have come to know as the classic Dayton Moore signing. There are some red flags – namely the fact that he’s coming off a dreadful season (9-15, 4.28 ERA), and if you take it at face value without digging any deeper, you’re going to hate this deal and wonder why a guy with a career ERA of 4 is deserving of a contract so lengthy and expensive. But mostly every other angle points to this being a really successful contract for KC.
For example, over the past three seasons with the Padres, he’s pitched in front of one of baseball’s worst defenses. According to Fangraphs, only the White Sox had a worse defense in 2015. Plus, the spike in home runs in SD wasn’t exclusive to Kennedy (who gave up 31). James Shields led the league in home runs allowed with 33. Andrew Cashner gave up nearly twice as many HR/9 in 2015 as he did in 2014.
Between 2007 and 2014, Petco Park averaged 120.5 home runs per season. In 2014, there were only 101.
In 2015, there were 166.
Not sure what to make of that – maybe there has been some downtown construction that has caused some sort of jet stream for balls to get caught in. Maybe this is El Nino related – lower Eastern Pacific air pressure has caused the ball to travel farther. Or maybe the pitching was just that bad. I don’t know. But there’s something fishy going on at Petco Park.
EDIT: I just learned the left field fence was brought in about 3 feet before 2015, which isn’t much, but it’s something. That, plus the additions of Justin Upton and Matt Kemp (who combined for 28 HRs at Petco last year), was probably enough for a moderate increase. But neither of those guys batted against Shields/Kennedy/Cashner, so I’m still a bit stumped…101 to 166 is still significant.
Anyway. Why I think this deal is a good one…
The two primary reasons to really like the Ian Kennedy deal: 1. his 2011 season and 2. his ability to consistently eat up innings.
Let’s look at his 2011 season with the Diamondbacks. That year he went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA and finished 4th in the Cy Young voting behind Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. It’s an anomaly on his career stats, but it’s also the only season he ever pitched in front of a terrific defense. The Diamondbacks, according to Fangraphs, were the best defense in baseball in 2011, and by a fair margin. They were led by the other Chris Young and Gerardo Parra in the outfield, and his lower strikeout rate would suggest that he learned how to pitch to his defense rather than trying to strike everybody out. His increase in strikeouts in San Diego suggests a lack of trust in his fielders…and for good reason. In fact, I’m hoping his K/9 drops in 2016, because it means he’s using his defense instead of trying to do it all himself.
Just this morning at ESPN, Buster Olney ranked the Royals defense as the best in the league (which they have been over the past few seasons) and they can only be expected to get stronger with Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain being joined by Jarrod Dyson as an every day outfielder instead of Nori “The Adventure” Aoki or Alex “Was that max effort?” Rios. If the Royals’ pitching coach, Dave Eiland (whom Kennedy worked with in his early years with the Yankees), can remind Kennedy to pitch to his defense, there’s reason to believe Kennedy can really thrive in 2016.
The other obvious reason to like Kennedy: every season he consistently hovers around 200 innings pitched. Last year he had a small hamstring issue early in the season that brought his IP total down, but the guy averages 205 innings over 162 games. The Royals don’t really have a guy like that (nor have they needed one with their bullpen depth), but if he can come anywhere close to that number this year he’ll be an enormous asset to this rotation.
If he struggles to keep his HR rate down and chooses not to opt out after two years, I’m not thrilled to be paying a guy $14M/year to be an average #3 starter, but all signs point to him bouncing back with the help of the defense and him opting out after two years. And even if he stays, $14M would be the going rate for a guy like Kennedy anyway.
It’s also possible the Royals choose to frontload the contract a bit and give him incentive to leave after two. How his contract is structured over 5 years will communicate a lot about KC’s confidence in IK.
There were a lot of names floating around this offseason (Yovani Gallardo, Wei-Yin Chen, Scott Kazmir, specifically), but I’m happy with Kennedy’s being the one the Royals grabbed. Eh, maybe I would’ve preferred Kazmir because he had no qualifying offer attached, but I don’t like Gallardo, and I’m not comfortable with the contract Chen ended up with in Miami.
So your 2016 Royals rotation is…
Put a bow on the offseason and get me to Spring Training. I hate this offseason winter business.
Image cred: Ron Chenoy, USA Today Sports. Accessed here.