We’ve come to learn that oftentimes when the hot stove starts simmering, dinner is almost ready.
Take for instance yesterday when Ken Rosenthal sent out a series of tweets about the Royals and their quest for starting pitching:
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 13, 2016
Which built on this tweet from Jon Heyman:
w/ starting pitching field narrowed, teams seen as most likely spots for ian kennedy include royals, nats, astros & rockies
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) January 13, 2016
Kennedy seems like exactly the kind of starting pitching the Royals would shop for in the free agent market. Meaning, he’s fairly mediocre. In his first three seasons as a starter, his ERA- was under 100. In the last three seasons, it was above 100. (100 being league average and under 100 being above average.) He’s had some success in the past, is relatively durable, and his recent struggles mean he should come for a discount at least by market standards. Then there’s the belief on the part of the Royals they can use their ballpark, their defense, and the wizard himself, Dave Eland to “fix” him.
Kennedy throws in the low 90s and, despite playing half his games at Petco in San Diego, finished last year with a homerific 1.66 HR/9 rate. That’s enough to throw the fear into any pitching coach in the game. Not so fast, though. Last year, Petco – a notorious pitchers park in the past – played much more home run friendly. According to ESPN’s Park Factors, it was the 10th easiest yard in the majors to exit last summer. There were a number of theories as to why baseballs suddenly became so eager to leave the Padres home park ranging from new construction around the stadium to the wind patterns to the fact the Padres pitching just wasn’t that great.
Kennedy has been homer-happy before. He owns a career 1.12 HR/9 rate, but just the previous season in San Diego, he finished with a 0.77 HR/9. So what can the wind or the weather be blamed for almost a doubling of Kennedy’s HR/9 rate?
Perhaps, but I prefer to look at his home run per fly ball rate. In Kennedy’s career, almost 11 percent of his fly balls go over the fence. That’s right around major league average. Last year, it was a whopping 17.2%, second highest in baseball among qualified starting pitchers. Just behind… His teammate James Shields. Seriously, something was going on in San Diego last summer.
So for a new team, the can expect some positive regression from Kennedy on his home run rate. Studies have shown that it will fluctuate from season to season, but should stabilize between 10 and 12 percent. When I was writing about fantasy baseball, we usually looked for guys with Kennedy’s home run profile as bounce back or sleeper candidates. It’s pretty rare when a guy follows up a homer happy season like that with another one. The truth in his HR/FB rate probably lies somewhere between his 2014 and 2015 seasons.
Kennedy is a fly ball pitcher and we all know how that plays at The K. With a ton of acreage and one of the best defenses in baseball behind him, should he join the Royals you know more of those fly balls will stay in the yard and more of those fly balls will be converted into outs. It’s the Royals Formula. And over the last couple of seasons, it’s worked quite well.
Kennedy would cost the Royals their first round pick in the 2016 draft. They are slotted at 24 at the moment although that could change with several free agents with qualifying offers attached still floating around the market. But bringing Kennedy on board for at least the next two years (and probably a third) would continue to signal the front office recognizes their best chance at winning comes in the next two seasons. With Alex Gordon back and the rest of the core returning, the conventional thinking is the Royals need one more arm for the rotation to stay in the thick of the AL Central. Yes, the bullpen is great and will continue to be a strength, but how nice is it to have a starting pitcher would could potentially give you 200 innings, as Kennedy has done in three times in six seasons as a starter.
Another point in Kennedy’s favor would be his relationship with Eiland. Kennedy has made several mechanical adjustments in the last couple of years, searching for the answers to get back to his early successes. Last summer, it was about where he was standing on the mound. Two years ago it was about increasing torque and downward plane. Can Eiland help him find consistency? It could be worth a shot to find out.
At this point, I’d lean toward Kennedy over another oft-mentioned free agent candidate in Yovanni Gallardo. Like Kennedy, Gallardo is tied to a qualifying offer. Unlike Kennedy, Gallardo has seen his velocity and strikeout rate tumble the last several seasons. Kennedy’s strikeout rate has gone up every single season since he became a starter. Seriously, it’s climbed each of the last five years, going from 7.79 SO/9 to last year’s 9.30 SO/9. That’s not a trend that can continue obviously, but give me the guy who has had his rate move in a positive direction the last several seasons over the guy who has seen his drop.
Kennedy isn’t a sexy choice, but he’s a solid one. And that’s what the Royals are looking for at this stage in their title defense. The Royals certainly still have some room on the payroll and this remains their greatest need. I would expect some movement on this in the next week or so as the Royals ready their roster for 2016.