Bret Sayre wrote a post yesterday articulating the case against Ian Kennedy as a Top 25 fantasy pitcher, and he did a fine job. I appreciate being challenged to reevaluate my positions (Yep, I'm the guy who ranked Kennedy 14th), so I went digging. I'll go ahead and spoil the ending: while I admit that 14 may have been a little aggressive, I don't think that it was by too much. On Bret's post, 4% of poll respondents said they thought Kennedy belonged in the Top 15, while only an additional 21% would put him in the next 5. Clearly the majority of you disagree with me, which is why I'm writing this post. I'm convinced that Kennedy can and will be a top 20 fantasy pitcher in 2012.
Ian Kennedy had a breakout 2011, his age 26 season, as he went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 194 strikeouts in 222 innings pitched (8.03 K/9). Those numbers were good enough for 7th among starting pitchers on both ESPN's Player Rater and FanGraphs' Fantasy Value Above Replacement (FVARz) rankings. It's generally accepted (read: I haven't seen anybody suggest otherwise) that Kennedy's performance numbers were not supported by his skill numbers in 2011. We can reasonably expect the fantasy stats to regress, especially the win total. Twenty-one wins is an unreasonable predication for anybody, really. While some regression is expected, I'm not ready to jump up and project a huge fall from grace.
The main part of Kennedy's game that keeps me in his corner is the way he has improved his fastball. Like many pitchers, Kennedy possesses two kinds of fastballs, a two-seamer and a four-seamer. Kennedy has always had his four-seamer - he says it's the only pitch he threw in high school. He introduced the two-seam pitch (which has more horizontal movement and slightly less vertical movement) later on in his professional career. In 2010, he threw the pitch only 11.5% of the time, and it's easy to see why when you look at his heat maps, courtesy of texasleaguers.com:
A two-seam fastball breaks away from the pitcher's arm side. Many young pitchers feel more comfortable throwing the pitch to the half of the plate that the ball naturally ends up on. For a right-hander like Kennedy, that's the inside half of the plate for right-handed hitters, or the outside half for lefties. As you can see in the chart above, Kennedy clearly fell into that pattern.
In 2011, several things changed. First of all, the velocity of his two-seam pitch rose to the level of his 4-seamer, which is fantastic for deception. Secondly, Kennedy developed better control of this pitch, allowing him to control both sides of the plate:
As the year went on and Kennedy developed a feel for the pitch, he threw it more and more, as you can probably tell. In the end, the two-seam fastball was his most-used pitch at 38%.
The numbers support what you see on the charts: He threw more strikes with the two-seamer (68.8% in 2011 vs. 60.2% in 2010) and threw more strikes overall (66.6% vs. 62.8%). The 2.23 BB/9 Ian sported in 2011 looks rather sustainable as a result, which should keep his rate stats down. That's fantastic news, given Kennedy's ability to pitch a high volume of innings. There's more: perhaps as a result of the improved fastball command (there were likely other factors at work), he improved his ground ball rate. Kennedy's reputation is that of a fly ball pitcher, and that reputation is well-earned, but last year his GB/FB rate improved to 0.98. More ground balls mean less balls leaving the ballpark and more inning-ending double plays.
To sum up: Kennedy will not likely perform at his 2011 level, which was probably right around 7th best in the bigs. Because he seems to have turned a corner as far as his control is concerned, 2.23 BB/9 actually seems reasonable, which should keep his WHIP (and ultimately his ERA) down. I like him to post a slightly higher xFIP than last year (3.50) and to outperform it for a third straight year. I don't like to project wins, but I wouldn't be shocked to see him go over 15 again. Arizona will likely be contenders for much of the season again, and Kennedy's ability to go deep into games will only help his cause. The high inning volume causes me to not be too worried about strikeouts, either. Although the K-rate should decrease, as Bret pointed out in his article, he should still be able to provide well over 150 strikeouts and could approach 200 again.
In all, I buy into a certain level of sustainability based on what we can see from PitchFX. I need to take a deeper look at the pitchers I initially ranked around Kennedy before I make a definitive declaration about just how far I'll drop him, but I really don't see him dropping out of my top 20. Right now he is the 18th pitcher off the board at Mock Draft Central, and that seems just about right to me.
Projection: 220 IP, 15 wins, 185 strikeouts (7.57 K/9), 3.35 ERA, 1.15 WHIP