While the Kansas City Royals have been an slightly pleasant surprise at 8-11 going into this weekend’s series in Minnesota against the Twins, one player that has been a disappointment so far in 2020 has been reliever Ian Kennedy. Signed in 2016 to a five-year $70 million contract (which cost the Royals a first-round pick that year as well), Kennedy failed to live up to his billing as a starter, as he struggled to stay healthy and effective as a Royals starting pitcher following his debut season in Kansas City. After posting an 11-11 record, 3.68 ERA, and 4.3 WAR in 2016, Kennedy posted a 5-13 record, 5.38 ERA and 0.7 WAR in 2017, and a 3-9 record, 4.66 ERA, and 0.8 WAR in 2018. In addition to the regression in performance in 2017 and 2018, Kennedy only pitched 119.2 innings in 2018, his lowest innings count since 2009 (in which he only pitched one inning that year due to injury). Hence, the Royals decided last year to move Kennedy to the bullpen in order to see if he could rejuvenate his career after back-to-back subpar seasons.
In 2019, the experiment worked for both Kennedy and the Royals. Kennedy improved his stock as a pitcher, as he posted a 3.41 ERA and saved 30 games in 63 appearances and 63.1 IP. Kennedy also saw valuable gains in many key metrics. His fastball velocity increased from 91.9 MPH in 2018 to 94.5 MPH from 2018 to 2019, respectively, and the increased velocity on the pitch made him more effective overall. He increased his strikeout rate from 20.3 percent to 27.4 percent; the exit velocity on batted balls decreased from 89.6 to 88.5 MPH; his HR/FB rate decreased from 12.5 percent to 9.4 percent (the first time it has been under 10 percent since 2014 in San Diego); and his K/BB ratio increased from 2.63 to 4.29. And thus, the Royals seemed to be in a good situation with Kennedy going into 2020. At the very least, he seemed like he could be a dependable closer for the Royals in the last year of his contract. Furthermore, if he continued to build on his strong 2019 in 2020, it was thought that Kennedy could produce some value in the trade market, an easy way for the Royals to build their system, and not too big a loss to the club either, considering that Kennedy doesn’t fit in the Royals’ future plans at 35-years-old.
However, 2020 for Kennedy has been a far cry from his breakout season as a reliever a year ago. Not only is Kennedy posting a 7.88 ERA and has the lowest WAR of Royals relievers so far this season (his WAR is -0.6), but he has lost the closer’s job to newcomer Trevor Rosenthal, and does not seem to be in the pecking order in close games. New manager Mike Matheny has been more apt to use Scott Barlow, Greg Holland, and even Josh Staumont in setup roles this season than Kennedy. And thus, not only does Kennedy fail to offer the Royals much this year on the field, but even worse, it seems unlikely that he’ll generate much trade interest this year either with the Trade Deadline about two weeks away.
So let’s take a look at how Kennedy has struggled so much in 2020, and what this could mean for him in terms of his future in Kansas City this season.
What’s interesting about Kennedy’s 2020 so far is that he’s actually performing well in certain areas. His K/9 rate is not too far off from last year, as his 10.13 K/9 rate is only .24 points lower from 2019. Additionally, Kennedy has been much better at limiting walks, as his BB/9 at 1.13 is 1.29 points lower than a year ago. And thus, Kennedy’s 9.00 K/BB ratio is nearly double his rate a year ago, which shows that Kennedy’s control is as strong as ever at 35-years-old.
However, control and command are different things. While Kennedy is keeping the ball in the strike zone, a sign of good control, he hasn’t necessarily put the ball in areas where he wants to be effective, a sign of command. That is evident in his HR rate, which sits at an astonishing 42.8 percent this year. In fact, Kennedy’s six home runs allowed lead MLB pitchers, not good for a pitcher who has only pitched eight innings thus far in 2020.
What has hurt Kennedy this year is the decreased velocity on his fastball, as it sits at only 93.7 MPH, a 0.8 MPH decrease. And with that decrease, he has generated less whiffs (22 percent this year in comparison to 25 percent last year) as well as a worse put-away rate (17.2 in 2020 to 21.7 in 2019), according to Statcast data. Furthermore, he seems to trust his fastball significantly less as a result, as he is only throwing it 47.5 percent of the time in comparison to his usage rate of 66.9 percent on the pitch a year ago. To compensate, he has relied more on his cutter, which he is throwing 35.5 percent of the time this year (he only threw it 16.5 percent of the time last season). While it has been his most effective pitch this year (only a .200 batting average on the pitch), it wasn’t all that effective last yea. It had the lowest put away percentage of his pitches a season ago (12.0 percent), and it still isn’t great when it comes to putting batters away this year either (he has a percentage of ZERO on the pitch). Thus, Kennedy will need to be more effective with his fastball (and use it more) over the remainder of this season if he wants to reclaim any of the success he had from a season ago.
In fact, if you look at the trend of his pitches since 2008, his 2020 pitch percentage looks pretty similar to his 2017 pitch breakdown, where he also used is fastball around 40 percent. That is not a good sign considering 2017 was arguably Kennedy’s worst season as a Royal.
That being said, if one wants to look at Kennedy’s metrics optimistically, it is likely that his HR/FB rate will eventually regress over the course of the season. Even in a shortened season, 42.9 percent is ridiculously unsustainable (especially considering Kauffman’s park factors), and there is no way that Kennedy will finish the year with a rate that high. That being said, Kennedy has less time to see that percentage go down with only 41 games remaining on the slate. Considering that Kennedy seems to be low in the order when it comes to bullpen reliability, he won’t get a lot of chances to prove that he can decrease that rate and also see his other metrics (ERA, WHIP, WAR, etc.) become more effective as well.
And thus, the Royals are in a tough spot. Based on this data, do they just DFA him, eat his salary, and let Kennedy try to prove that with another team? Or do they stay patient and see if he can improve in the second half, thinking that this underwhelming start from him is an abnormality that will correct itself over the course of the season?
The Royals have one decision to make regarding Kennedy, even if it may not be a popular one with Royals fans.
When looking at the whole picture, the Royals may be better off keeping Kennedy rather than releasing him, though Royals fans may prefer the latter. The fact of the matter is Kennedy holds little to no value to the Royals beyond this year. And that will be true for many MLB teams as well. Not many teams will take a shot on him in the trade market knowing that he will be a free agent that they most likely will not be retained in 2021. And thus, the idea that the Royals could get a prospect or two from him through a trade has gone out the window. Therefore, the Royals would be better off riding it out the rest of the year with Kennedy in a lessened role in the bullpen, with the hope that he can have a second half that is more indicative of what he did a year ago, when he looked like one of the better relievers in the AL Central.
Of course, right now (as evidenced by his WAR), Kennedy is doing more damage than good to the Royals bullpen. But the good thing for the Royals though is that the Royals do not NEED Kennedy like they did a year ago. Rosenthal, Holland, Barlow, and Staumont have stepped up in his struggles, and even Kyle Zimmer has an emerged as an option who could get more innings as Kennedy tries to figure things out. But Kennedy has proved to be a streaky pitcher for the Royals, and even last year, Kennedy didn’t turn it on until June, according to his month-by-month 2019 splits. And while the four relievers listed have been good, they all have iffy track records from the past couple of years, especially Rosenthal and Holland. Kennedy at the very least gives Matheny some insurance if Rosenthal and Holland happen to regress or go through their own struggles in the second half of 2020.
There’s no question Kennedy is bad now. And he certainly is frustrating for Royals fans to see whenever he comes in and gives up another home run. But it may be too early to make a call on Kennedy, and a lot of metrics do suggest that he may be due to see some improvement soon. Will he be good as his 2019 self? Most likely not. Will he generate any value for a trade? That’s probably doubtful.
But can he still be a valuable Royal reliever down the stretch in 2020, even if he may not be the closer or top setup person?
That certainly is still possible…