With two days remaining before the September crunch, the Yankees are still in a position they’re not used to–on the outside looking in. Seven games behind the Red Sox, our own Playoff Odds Report gives the Bronx Bombers less than a four percent chance to walk away with the American League East title, which they have done in each of the last nine years. The good news is that they have right around a 60/40 shot at the wild card–currently a three-team race that also features Seattle and Detroit.
While it’s hard to talk about what’s gone wrong for a team with a 74-59 record, pitching is the reason New York’s nine-year run of American League East titles is coming to an end this year. The offense leads the American League by hitting .291/.364/.465 as a team and averaging a whopping 5.9 runs per games, but the pitching staff and defense, giving up 4.8 per contest, ranks eighth of 14 teams. The team has had its share of injuries, but also its share of ineffectiveness. While nobody (not even the Yankees) expected stardom, Japanese import Kei Igawa was supposed to be a solid back-of-the-rotation option, but instead he lasted 12 games with a near-seven ERA before going to the minors. Dealing with the injuries and waiting for Roger Clemens, rookies like Tyler Clippard (6.33 ERA in six starts) and Matt DeSalvo (6.18 in his six) weren’t up to the task, and while Philip Hughes was, he went and got hurt himself.
Now, after struggling much of the year, the usually dependable Mike Mussina has completely fallen off the cliff, especially in his last three starts:
On Wednesday, manager Joe Torre and his staff decided to skip Mussina’s next turn in the rotation. In previous years, this would call for some minor league veteran like Darren Hall or Darrell May or Donovan Osborne to make the spot start, but the Yankees are doing something different this year. First off, there are no such players in their current Triple-A rotation for the first time in ages–they’re all prospects of varying degrees. Secondly, Joe Torre has learned a valuable lesson this year, one that will serve him well now that the Yankees actually have a good minor league system–sometimes, going with the kid is the right choice. His evidence is simply Joba Chamberlain, who is quickly becoming a legend, despite pitching in just eight games. In those eight games, Chamberlain has delivered ten innings of shutout baseball, allowing just four hits and three walks while striking out 17. The overwhelming majority of his appearances have made the SportsCenter highlight reel, and how many non-closing relievers can say that, unless they’re giving up the big hit?
So now, in desperate need of a starter, with Clippard and DeSalvo looking like flavors that the Yankees don’t want to taste again, the team turns to the player that was actually drafted 20 selections before Chamberlain last June and received twice the bonus: Ian Kennedy.
On paper, Kennedy is ready. Like Chamberlain, Kennedy started the year in Tampa, and advanced all the way to Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre without encountering even the smallest bump in the road:
Team Level G IP H BB SO ERA OppAVG Tampa A+ 11 63.0 39 22 72 1.29 .183 Trenton AA 9 48.2 27 17 57 2.59 .163 ScrantonWB AAA 6 34.2 25 11 35 2.08 .205 Total 26 146.1 91 50 163 1.91 .182
Outstanding numbers? Without question. Deserving of a shot? Certainly. More so than anyone else in the system? Yes, again. The second savior of the staff, with Joba being the first? Nope. Sorry, folks.
Let’s start with the basics on a scouting level. Kennedy is smallish (6’0), and his best pitch is a power changeup, which features heavy, late movement, and rates somewhere around a 60 on the 20-80 scouting scale according to most. He throws a two- and four-seam fastball, and rarely even touches 90 mph with his heaters. His curveball is an average offering. That kind of stuff just doesn’t jive with those numbers above. So how is he doing it? Command and control. Kennedy’s command and control scores rank with anyone in the minors. Don’t judge this solely by the walk rate; it’s about locating your pitches, setting up hitters, and never giving them something good to hit. For example, Greg Maddux, even in his prime, walked more batters than Carlos Silva, but obviously had far better command and control.
So now, before we go projecting stardom, let’s do a quick exercise based on what we know. Close your eyes, and try to think of every starting pitcher in the big leagues. Now think of every good right-hander who is six-foot or under and sits in the upper 80s. Done with your list? It’s not a long one, is it? In fact, it’s probably at zero, unless you count guys like Maddux who actually did sit consistently in the low 90s during his peak years.
Kennedy is pretty much the poster child for the kind of player who can put up ridiculous numbers in the minor leagues, but when it comes to the majors, he’s not as good. This is not a rip job on Kennedy by any means whatsoever. He’s a very good prospect, profiling as a solid number three or four starter in the big leagues for a long time. Those players are remarkably valuable (just look at last winter’s free agent market for evidence). But unlike Chamberlain, Yankees fans shouldn’t be expecting greatness from him, either now or in the future.