Royals pitcher Ian Kennedy likes to joke that he prepared for being a closer by being a starter who’d put himself in so many potentially game-changing situations where he faced bases loaded and one out in the second or fourth inning.
Kennedy, who has started 85 games for the Royals and 289 in his career, now comfortably makes wise cracks about his switch from starter to reliever. But in spring training, the hesitancy and uncertainty were evident in his voice once the Royals announced the move. He still felt that he could start, and he said so.
“For him, there was probably a few moments where he was like, ‘Man, do I really want to do this? Is this the right thing? Should I do this?’ You know, back in spring training,” Royals pitching coach Cal Eldred said. “Ultimately, he decided he’d do what was best for the team. It’s been really good for the club.”
It’s been quite a reboot for Kennedy as a big-league pitcher. He certainly seems entrenched as a reliever, and the results have been noteworthy.
During a 56-win season for the Royals through Friday, Kennedy had 30 saves. He joined Greg Holland (three times), Jeff Montgomery (five times), Dan Quisenberry (five times) and Joakim Soria (three times) as the only pitchers in franchise history with 30-save seasons.
Kennedy also became one of four major league pitchers with both a 20-win season and a 30-save season. The others were Derek Lowe and a pair of Hall of Famers in Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz.
Considering Kennedy didn’t get the nod as the Royals’ full-time ninth-inning guy until late May — Kennedy was two for four in save opportunities before May 30 — Eldred equates Kennedy’s year to more like a 40-save season.
“That’s impressive in today’s game because the ninth inning — I don’t care what anybody says who analyzes this game — it’s a different animal,” Eldred said. “I’ve done it. I’ve seen people do it. I’ve seen people be successful and fail. It’s just not an easy thing. Where he’s at right now is pretty impressive. Hopefully, we get a few more of those before this year is out.”
Eldred, in his second season as pitching coach, understands the transition because he made a similar switch late in his career. While Kennedy’s move came at age 34, Eldred was 35 when he moved to the bullpen.
Eldred’s transition didn’t go nearly as well as Kennedy’s right off the bat, but he’s been one of the most important sounding boards and mentors for Kennedy through the process the same way veteran pitcher Russ Springer served as Eldred’s mentor during his ups and downs during his move to the bullpen.
“Cal has been a really big help just because he did it,” Kennedy said. “He started for a long time, pitched out of the bullpen and had a lot of success and had to stop playing because of non-baseball related stuff. He’s been a really big help just by picking his brain.”
Kennedy has also turned to friends in the game who’ve made similar adjustments and/or who have a wealth of knowledge and experience pitching in the back end of the bullpen such as close friend Luke Hochevar, Wade Davis and Holland.
But Kennedy has leaned on Eldred for a lot of the day-to-day things that can seem small but are foreign territory for a career starter. Daily routines such as playing catch or warming up are different. He needed to adapt his pitch usage because he wouldn’t face a lineup a second or third time.
During the first two months of the season, Kennedy pitched anywhere from the sixth to the ninth inning and he had five outings of more than an inning.
Kennedy described finally settling into a defined role as “mentally freeing” as opposed to the “mentally draining” scenario of not knowing when he’d come in or if he’d come in for multiple innings.
Since May 30, Kennedy’s 28 saves lead the majors, as do his 19 saves since the All-Star break. Overall this season, he’s converted 30 of 34 chances. This season in 60 appearances, he’s posted a 3.28 ERA with a 1.29 WHIP and 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
When asked about earning a place among some of the game’s top closers, pitchers he holds in high regard for their ability to consistently handle the pressure, Kennedy deflected and said his success this season hadn’t sunken in.
“I don’t know,” Kennedy said. “It happens. What is cool is that you can go almost the month of August we didn’t have an opportunity. I think I pitched twice where it was just to get some work. Then all of a sudden it’s every other game or every game you’re in there. … It’s cool how if your team gets on a roll, you feel like you are part of every win.”
Royals manager Ned Yost said Kennedy remains capable of starting or relieving, even as he dubbed Kennedy’s first season in the closer’s role as “elite.” While Yost left the door open for Kennedy to be a starter again, Yost also said he fully expects Kennedy to come to spring training next year as a reliever.
Kennedy has grown to crave the adrenaline rush that comes with high-leverage ninth-inning situations. He knows that can’t be duplicated in any scenario as a starter.
Plus, he doesn’t sound like a man yearning to grind through six or seven innings every fifth day.
“I can tell you I like how my body feels as a reliever,” Kennedy said. “As a starter you feel like you get hit by a truck every fifth day. And it took longer and longer [to recover]. When I was younger, it’d take probably three days. That fourth day you’d feel good, then you pitched the fifth. Then you started all over again. The last two years, it took every bit to feel better, to feel like I could get in there again.”