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Fool's Gold: The Ian Kennedy Story

Should you fear the ginger beard?
Should you fear the ginger beard?

Hey, good to see you again -- welcome to the first of my Friday posts focused on starting pitching. Once the season actually gets going, this will be where I'll post my "Ahead of the Curve" column. If you want to know more about what that will look like, I posted a sneak preview of it a few weeks back at Roto Hardball. In the meantime, I'm going to dig into the SP rankings here at Fake Teams and respectfully disagree with some particular placements. Some weeks will be glowing articles about pitchers I love to sing the praises of. This is not one of those weeks.

Let's get this out of the way first: I don't hate Ian Kennedy. He's never said a bad word to my family and he's never cut me off on the highway. He's never stolen my lunch money and he's never made out with one of my exes (probably). By all accounts, he's a really good guy. And he's got a ginger beard -- which is definitely a top-5 form of facial hair. That's a lot of talk about what Ian Kennedy is, but unfortunately for the rest of the post here, I'm going to focus on what he's not. He's not a top-25 pitcher in fantasy.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, he's #28 in my starting pitching ranks which makes him a pretty good #3 option in shallower leagues. But at Fake Teams, he's #14 -- and it's anything but an outlier. Mock Draft Central currently has Kennedy going 18th among starters. Tristan Cockcroft at ESPN has him at 16th in his early pre-season rankings. So I guess I'm the weird one here.

If you look at the top 30 or so pitchers in the majors, it's uncommon to find one who was not looked at as at least a potential front-line starter (#1 or solid #2) when he was a prospect. In fact, within the top 30 pitchers being drafted at MDC, I'm seeing either 4 or 5 tops. Here's what Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus said about Ian Kennedy prior to the 2008 season:

The Good: Kennedy's best pitch is a plus-plus changeup that features arm-side deception and late, heavy drop. It worked as an out pitch at every level, including the majors. He sets it up with a fastball that has average velocity at 88-91 mph, but grades up a level because of Kennedy's ability to locate it at will. His curveball is average and effective when he mixes it in.

The Bad: The only real knock against Kennedy is his ceiling. He doesn't have front-end starter's stuff, and projects as no more than a third starter, but the good news is that he's already there. He's a bit on the smallish side, and his fastball can get a bit straight at times.

Goldstein was not alone in this regard, as Kennedy was always more polish than upside. Kennedy was never supposed to be a star, at least not like he showed in his raw stats last season. With that said, I'm fully aware that this was a long time ago and scouting reports are exactly what they are -- highly educated guesses. So let's move chronologically along to see what made him so successful in 2011.

We know the numbers -- 21 wins, 2.88 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 198 K's in 222 IP -- and they're really impressive, but are they sustainable? Let's start with the predictive ERA tools. Kennedy's xFIP in 2011 was 3.52, good for 22nd in MLB. His tERA was 3.90, good for 36th in MLB. These are good numbers, but different from the 11th he finished in ERA. The biggest help to his ERA was a strand rate of 79.2%, which was 9th in MLB (the league average was 72.5%). I'm not even going to bother with his win total as that's just not going to happen again. So this leaves us with strikeouts. What bothers me about Kennedy's strikeout rate, which eclipsed 8.0 K/9 for the first time in his career in 2011, is that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense when looked at in tandem with his swinging strike rate. Fortunately for all of us (and me in particular in writing this), fellow new Fake Teams contributor Michael Barr has already looked at this correlation and ranked Kennedy as one of his strikeout outperformers. The link to his piece is here and I implore you to read it, but essentially he says that Kennedy should have had a K/9 rate of closer to 7.1 last season (which would have been approximately 23 fewer K's).

Another factor which needs to be considered is that, while Kennedy played in front of an other worldly defensive OF last season, Jason Kubel is going to be Arizona's new LF. Gerardo Parra, the man he's replacing, was 6th in baseball in UZR. Meanwhile in Minnesota, Kubel was such a great outfielder, that he was primarily the DH (he of the career -41.8 UZR). For a flyball pitcher like Kennedy, this is a difference he will notice.

Like I said earlier, with all this, I still believe Kennedy should be drafted as a top-30 pitcher. His improving walk rate should give a natural ceiling to his WHIP of around 1.25 and two-thirds of his outfield defense (which he relies on heavily) will still be awesome. Baseball Prospectus released their PECOTA projections this week for 2012, and they have Kennedy tabbed for 13 wins, 3.66 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 179 K's in 208 IP. On the other hand, Bill James has Kennedy's 2012 performance markedly better at 15 wins, 3.24 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 200 K's in 222 IP. I think somewhere between those two predictions is probably about right, though I'd lean closer to PECOTA.

My 2012 Ian Kennedy prediction: 14 wins, 3.52 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 174 K's in 210 IP