Opinion

Ian Kennedy doubles down on pitch that has helped him — and hurt him

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Ian Kennedy.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Ian Kennedy. jsleezer@kcstar.com

This is the continuation of a weekly stats column to examine how this year’s Royals compare to the 2015 World Series champions. All numbers through Tuesday’s game.

Right-hander Ian Kennedy has a 1.14 ERA in his last six starts, solidifying the Royals rotation while helping the team get back in playoff contention.

So what’s changed recently? It appears Kennedy hasn’t been afraid to double down on a pitch that’s been both his Kryptonite and also his best weapon.

Let’s explain.

Kennedy’s most effective offering is his four-seam fastball. Because he throws the pitch with a high spin rate — ranking 34th out of 155 pitchers with 500 fastballs this year — it has a bit of a rising effect.

There are two ways this helps him. For one, Kennedy can get hitters to swing and miss underneath, as Boston’s Jackie Bradley Jr. does in Kennedy’s last start.

The late rise also can induce pop-ups, like this one from Minnesota’s Eddie Rosario.

There’s danger when throwing these fastballs up, though. If the pitch doesn’t rise enough, it could get crushed, as we see from this J.D. Martinez at-bat.

So what has Kennedy done during his dominant stretch lately? With no fear, he’s let his best pitch fly.

Here’s a look at the number of four-seam fastballs he’s thrown each month of his career. This August has set a new career-high at 73 percent.

  

Also, here’s the location of Kennedy’s four-seam fastballs early in the season, compared to his last six games.

Kennedy has been more aggressive with throwing his fastball up. And it’s worked if you take a look at the results.

The approach has led to a spike in flyballs, which have often turned to outs because of KC’s strong outfield defense.

  

Kennedy has also had improved walk numbers while throwing his secondary pitches less often.

Here’s a look at the spray chart from Kennedy’s past six starts when he throws his fastball in the upper two-thirds of the strike zone.

 

There are a high number of red dots (pop-ups) and dark green dots (flyballs) that resulted in opponents’ outs. You also will notice that comes with the two maroon dots beyond the wall.

It’s all part of Kennedy living on the edge, throwing his best pitch more often and higher in the strike zone than he has previously.

The bravery has been well worth it so far.

Let’s take a look at this week’s team numbers.

Hitting

2015 — .269/.322/.412 (Batting average/On-base percentage/Slugging percentage)

2016 — .262/.313/.400

Last 7 days — .246/.316/.421

KC’s offense lingered around its season average for the second straight week, getting a slight boost in power while lagging behind in average.

Hitting with runners in scoring position

2015 — .282/.347/.426

2016 — .266/.328/.393

The Royals continue to be the most impatient team in this situation, walking only 8 percent of the time with RISP. The Texas Rangers are next to last at 8.2 percent, while Milwaukee is the best in the majors with a 13.5-percent walk rate.

Starting pitching

2015 — 4.34 ERA, 16.8 K%, 7.6 BB%

2016 — 4.54, 20.4, 8.1

Last 7 days — 5.24, 15.7, 6.3

The numbers here look worse following Danny Duffy’s seven-runs-in-five-innings outing against a tough Red Sox lineup. In that start, the left-handed Duffy surrendered a season-high nine hits to go with a season-worst two strikeouts.

Relief pitching

2015 — 2.72, 22.9, 8.7

2016 — 3.07, 23.0, 8.1

Last 7 days — 1.63, 18.6, 7.6

The Royals’ bullpen ERA has dropped to the best in baseball, with that 3.07 number well below the Dodgers and Nationals, who are tied for second with a 3.35.

Defense

2015 — 51 defensive runs saved (.315 per game, 2nd in MLB)

2016 — 37 defensive runs saved (.280 per game, 5th in MLB)

It’s not surprising, but KC’s three leaders in defensive runs saved are all outfielders: Jarrod Dyson (17), Paulo Orlando (12) and Lorenzo Cain (11).

Top 5 in Fangraphs WAR

2015 — Cain 6.6, Moustakas 3.8, Hosmer 3.5, Gordon 2.8, Ventura 2.7

2016 — Duffy 2.8, Cain 2.5, Perez 2.3, Herrera 2.1, Dyson 1.6

Salvador Perez continues to be one of the Royals’ streakiest hitters, hitting .304/.360/.739 this week to snap out of a recent offensive funk.

Bottom 5 in Fangraphs WAR

2015 — Infante -0.9, Guthrie -0.9, Almonte -0.4, Gomes -0.3, Coleman -0.2

2016 — Young -1.2, Pounders -0.3, Hosmer -0.2, Burns -0.2, Fuentes -0.2

The good news for Eric Hosmer is that Baseball-Reference is kinder to him while listing his WAR at 1.1. The bad news is that both numbers indicate Hosmer is a below-average player — not something the Royals likely expected from a player entering his prime.

Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell

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