Ian Kennedy is pretty good. No, he’s not great. He’s not the best pitcher the Royals have. If he was, they’d be in bigger trouble than they already are. But he’s pretty good. And at this point, I’m sure you’re already tired of me telling you he’s pretty good. But he is, so what can you do?
A lot was made of the big deal he signed with the Royals, and when a guy signs for the second largest total amount in team history, there will be eyes on him. If he falters, he will be called out. And that seems to be what’s happened with Kennedy this season.
Let’s take a look at the numbers. He’s thrown 133.2 innings this season, which is the second most on the Royals. In those 133.2 innings, he’s allowed just 115 hits, which is the second least of any of the Royals four qualified starters. He has a 3.91 ERA and a 113 ERA+. Those are both second among the Royals four qualified starters. He’s struck out 134, which is also the second most of any of the Royals four qualified starters. He’s walked 45. Want to guess where that ranks among Royals qualified starters? That’s right, second. I knew you had it in you.
So I think it’s fair to say that based on those numbers, he’s been the second best starter this season, behind the surprising Danny Duffy.
That says there’s a lot of good with Kennedy this year, especially relative to the Royals pitching staff. But there’s also some bad, and I think that’s a big reason why there are some in the Royals universe convinced that Ian Kennedy is actually bad.
I think the innings he’s thrown haven’t been there as expected, which has been a point of contention with some, so that’s there. I don’t think it’s the biggest reason, though.
He’s given up an awful lot of home runs. Giving up home runs doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad pitcher. It doesn’t help, but if you’re not giving up much more, you can still survive. This year, Kennedy is in a dog fight with Josh Tomlin, R.A. Dickey, friend Chris Young and Jered Weaver for most homers allowed. A couple other friends, Brandon Finnegan and James Shields, may also factor in before it’s all said and done, too.
So he’s given up a lot of home runs, and I think that skews perception in two ways. One, home runs are instant offense. You know that. It’s no secret. When a home run is hit, there’s at least one run scored for whoever hits it. Sometimes, there’s even more than one run. So it looks bad. Think about Kennedy’s start on Wednesday. He gave up just one run over 6.1 innings, but it was a home run to J.B. Shuck. I mean, come on. Shuck? It looks bad. When he hit it, I’m sure many thought, “Oh boy, here we go again.”
So home runs aren’t aesthetically pleasing when your favorite team is giving them up. But another reason that home runs can be something to make you believe a pitcher is bad is there’s a statistic that’s become much more mainstream these days that I personally think overvalues the home run. That’s FIP. You’ve heard of it. Some of you have probably wondered what it is. Some of you know what it is. Some of you don’t care what it is.
Here’s how FIP is calculated:
That constant varies and it’s based on the league ERA and the same formula used to calculate the actual FIP. That part isn’t all that important for this discussion. What you may notice is that FIP looks at just four components. It’s home runs, strikeouts, walks and innings. And that’s it. I don’t want to get into a long message about why FIP isn’t nearly as accurate an indicator as it both used to be and as some believe, but it really hurts a guy like Ian Kennedy.
The guy’s ERA is 3.91, but his FIP is a whopping 4.96 (5.00 by some other slightly tweaked calculations, but it’s in the same ballpark). Why? It’s because he gives up a lot of home runs. And I get that to some extent because the home run is instant offense. A guy can give up four singles in an inning and not allow a run, while Kennedy could strike out the side and allow just one batter to reach and give one run up.
I’m going to give you one more short point about why I think FIP is skewing perception of Kennedy and then I’ll move on, I swear.
I’m going to give you a pitcher’s line and you tell me if he’s having a better season than Kennedy, knowing his numbers, or worse.
That’s the line for Volquez this year. He’s thrown a similar number of innings per start, but he’s struck out 27 less batters, walked nine more and given up 30 (!) more runs than Kennedy. His FIP is 4.36. By that metric, he’s actually a better bet moving forward to succeed than Kennedy. That’s kind of hard for me to believe.
That’s not to say FIP isn’t useful. As with basically any other stat, it’s about how you use it, and it’s important to remember there are blinders with just about any stat you can look at.
Since FIP was created years ago, some other ERA indicator stats have been released that I think are a little more accurate. They’re not quite as easy to calculate, which makes people skeptical of them, but two I like a lot are DRA (deserved run average) and SIERA (skill-interactive ERA). Both are just a bit more comprehensive than FIP.
Kennedy’s DRA is 3.90. His SIERA is 4.06.
It might be easy to ding me for believing in those two stats because I think they fit my argument better, and I guess that’s sort of fair, but at the same time, I’m growing wearier and wearier of FIP’s usefulness given the alternatives out there. By the way, Volquez’s DRA is 5.11 and his SIERA is 4.55.
Back to Kennedy specifically, there’s a lot to like with what he’s done this season. He’s kept the team in the game way more often than not, allowing two or less runs in 15 of his 23 starts, a rate that’s on par with guys like Chris Sale and Cole Hamels. He’s gone six or more innings 14 out of 23 times and only failed to get through five innings three times. And one of those times was that weird rain delay game in Minnesota when he came back out after the delay and struggled.
Some might believe Kennedy is overpaid, and relative to the total payroll of the Royals, he probably is. In terms of baseball money, that’s not especially true. A win on the free agent market is worth around $8 million. He’s been worth 2.4 WARP this year and was at 2.2 and 2.3 the last two seasons. He’s averaged around 2.7 WARP for every 33 starts he makes. He’s on pace for about a 3.4 WARP this year, so even if you peg him for a decline of 0.5 every year, he’s set to be worth 12 WARP over the life of his deal, which in present day money is worth about $96 million, or $26 million more than he’s owed.
Honestly, I think there’s a chance he might opt out after next season, especially if he puts up another quality season next year like he did this year. The 2017/2018 market isn’t exactly littered with aces. There are some nice names, but Kennedy only has to exceed $43 million in guaranteed money to make it worth his while. Sure he’ll be 33, but two solid seasons might allow him to exceed that. I’m not going to predict it, but it’s not as far-fetched as a lot believe.
Whatever he does at the end of 2017, it’s clear to me that Kennedy has been pretty good this year. And I’m pretty good with that.