|KANSAS CITY ROYALS|
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Signed RHP Ian Kennedy to a five-year, $70 million contract. [1/15]
If you heard what sounded like a faint grunt of disgust on Saturday, it may have been the collective baseball blogosphere reacting to the five-year, $70 million contract that Ian Kennedy signed with Kansas City. Five years for a 30-something right-hander who has failed to post a sub-four ERA in three of the last four seasons tells us a couple of things: (1) it’s expensive to buy a guaranteed 30-plus starts on the open market, and (2) the Royals somehow believe Kennedy can outrun his recent level of performance in Kansas City.
Since the beginning of the 2010 season, Kennedy has started 192 games, which ranks as the seventh-most in Major League Baseball over that time frame. That kind of durability is increasingly rare in today’s game, given the uptick in velocity and Tommy John surgeries, and that means it costs money. The Royals tried something similar two winters ago, when they inked lefty Jason Vargas to a four-year, $32 million contract. It’s easy to see why Kansas City prioritized innings, too. Their starting pitchers accounted for the fewest innings in the American League in 2015.
The monetary comparison between Kennedy and Vargas isn’t all that important—as free-agent contracts continue to soar with increased media revenues and tighter budget limitations for amateur players—but it’s striking that average-ish pitchers are requiring contracts two or three years longer than expected. It’s why Mike Pelfrey has inked two multi-year deals since 2013, despite posting a 4.94 ERA in those years. Innings cost money and years, and if they can potentially be league-average innings, that cost only increases.
Kennedy moves to an ideal situation in Kansas City, too, which rosies up the picture a bit. He’s a notorious fly-ball pitcher who suffered from an excessive 17.2 percent HR/FB percentage in 2015, a number that is four percent higher than his next-closest rate in 2013. One naturally expects that to normalize in this upcoming year. More importantly, though, his fly-ball tendencies won’t hurt him so much with one of baseball’s best outfield defenses behind him. Lorenzo Cain (+17.0 FRAA), Alex Gordon (+4.0 FRAA), Jarrod Dyson (+9.9 FRAA), and Paulo Orlando (+1.2 FRAA) should help minimize the damage fly balls can do—and it should be noted that Gordon’s 2015 FRAA is a massive outlier compared to previous years. Kauffman Stadium already limits home runs. The gargantuan upgrade from one of the league’s worst defensive outfields in San Diego should only improve his run prevention.
The home run issues also masked the continuation of his peripheral gains in 2014. Brooks Baseball shows that Kennedy has only averaged greater than 92 mph on his fastball in two seasons, 2014 and 2015. That coincides with a jump in his strikeout rate, as his 24.5 percent and 24.4 percent strikeout rates (respectively) are career-highs by over two percentage points. The right-hander also dropped his walk rate to 7.3 percent in 2015, which serves as a positive harbinger for future success.
It seems the Royals are betting on the velocity gain holding for the next few years and the recent peripheral improvement being sustainable. They’re also targeting the type of pitcher that can hypothetically benefit from their defensive prowess and ballpark. But, most importantly, the Royals are addressing their rotation’s biggest deficit: innings. The fact that his ERA could be stingier in Kansas City is just icing on the cake. —J.P. Breen
Kennedy’s disastrous 2015 season didn’t result from mysterious origins; he gives up a fair share of fly ball contact, it tends to be harder-than-average contact, and an absurd amount of the fly balls he gave up happened to land in the seats last year. So, let’s talk about fly balls.
First the ones that stayed in the yard: the best news in this deal is that Kennedy's support staff on the grass sees a massive upgrade. The Padres were a well below-average unit at converting fly balls into outs last year, and Kennedy paid a huge price, to the tune of a .264 batting average and .923 slugging percentage allowed on fly balls. For context, last year's league-average rates were .144 and .433, respectively. All told, batters hit .346 with a .667 slugging percentage on balls in play against Kennedy. Yikes. Enter the Kansas City defense, which ranked sixth in defensive efficiency and boasted some of the best outfield glove work this side of a Willie Mays Hays highlight real.
And for all of those fly balls—so, so many fly balls—that did leave the yard last year, more good news! Kaufman plays as a marginally below-average park for left-handed power and a downright terrible one for right-handed mashing. That combination rates as a sneaky and considerable improvement over Petco, which in spite of its reputation actually played to a comfortably above-average level for over-the-fence power last year. Kennedy's HR/FB rate has bounced around throughout his career, but an effort north of 17% last year marked a significant enough departure from his career average to raise an eyebrow or three. Batted ball distance on his homers allowed wasn't particularly obscene, and the smart money calls for a natural regression that the ballpark switch certainly won’t hurt.
On the flip side, a couple important factors work against Kennedy going forward. The first is the league switch—a sometimes overblown factor, but one that is certainly relevant for a pitcher who has historically struggled to control contact and needs every inch of his strikeout rate to provide stability for his ratios. And the second is a fairly catastrophic downgrade in primary receiver. Derek Norris caught the lion's share of Kennedy starts last year, and he was one of the best catchers in baseball by Adjusted FRAA. Austin Hedges caught the rest, and he wasn't far behind at all. Kennedy's new battery-mate Salvador Perez, on the other hand, checked in 56th in Adjusted FRAA out of the field of 67 big league catchers to log at least 1,500 framing chances. He lost about 20 fielding runs last year relative to the Norris/Hedges tandem.
Taking all factors into account Kennedy’s value probably more or less comes out in the wash. The ballpark should help standard regression take hold of his longball rate, the overall defensive upgrade is as significantly positive as the catcher downgrade is negative, and the jump to the AL hits a pitcher with Kennedy's particular profile especially hard. He's currently going 70th among starters, which is the rough equivalent of a $10 pitcher. That's a solid price for a notably durable starter who earned $15 as recently as 2014 and figures to be one of the more obvious candidates for positive batted ball regression in 2016.
One of these guys is out of a job now, and it probably won’t be until Spring Training until we get a sense of which one. The volatility for draft valuation purposes that goes with that kind of uncertainty is significant, though fortunately the headache is probably left only for AL-only and very deep mixed leaguers. Young actually pitched extremely well last year, racking up 11 wins to propel $10 in mixed league value. But he’s not the kind of guy you typically bother targeting on draft day, as evidenced by his current ADP as the 127th starter of the board. Duffy was abysmal last year, returning just a lone dollar of value despite logging nearly 140 innings. Managers have taken a flyer on him in NFBC formats at a slightly more frequent clip than Young to this point, but that likely changes now. And Medlen’s standing as a sneaky prospecting pick in –onlies certainly takes a shot with this news. None of these three make for a particularly enticing wager in any format at this stage, though the two guys who do wind up claiming rotation spots will present early FAAB opportunities to grab a starter from the World Champions for those in mono leagues. —Wilson Karaman