Could Ian Kennedy be a dominant reliever?

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The Royals have a sunk cost in Kennedy, and while paying a reliever $16.5 million isn’t ideal, things could be worse.

The Royals made it official that Ian Kennedy would pitch from the bullpen this year, making him—at $16.5 million— a very expensive relief option.

After a nice start to his career with the Royals, Kennedy has struggled in the starting rotation— not only due to a lack of quality pitching but also due to a lack of quality health. In 2016, Kennedy threw 195 innings and won 11 games with a 3.68 ERA. Since then, he has a record of 8-22, a 5.06 ERA and is averaging less than 140 innings per year.

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Moving Kennedy to the pen seems like a crazy idea, especially at that price, but it actually makes sense. With the Royals trying to find out what they have in a few young starting pitchers, Kennedy could anchor the bullpen in a multi-inning role, allowing Ned Yost to yank young pitchers sooner rather than later should they get into some serious trouble.

Could Kennedy spend an entire season doing what guys like Nathan Eovaldi and Josh Hader did in the 2018 playoffs? Coming into a game not as a three-out pitcher, but a guy who can get up to six outs? And if so, how good could he be?

The problem for Kennedy seems to be, at this stage of his career, multiple trips through the lineup. In 2018, Kennedy was great the first time through the opposing lineup, holding batters to a wOBA of .297 in 49 ⅔ innings. The second trip through the lineup is where hitters were really able to adjust to Kennedy, and he couldn’t adjust back. Hitters improved to a .408 wOBA the second time they faced Kennedy in 2018. He was able to readjust if he made it through a third time, holding batters to a .286 wOBA.

Of course, most pitchers are at their best the first time they face a hitter. Kennedy’s career numbers are no exception to the rule. The first time through the order, Kennedy has logged 622 innings and held batters to a .315 wOBA and .238/.307/.416 slash line. He also has a career xFIP of 3.93 the first time through the order versus his 4.18 career overall xFIP. Not a whole lot better.

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That being said, these numbers are as a starting pitcher, when he’s pacing himself to go five more more innings per outing. As a reliever, he’d be able to reach back and put a little extra on each pitch, knowing he’s only going for a few outs. He could pitch to a better xFIP in this scenario. Maybe a better comparison for Kennedy would be another former Royals pitcher, Wade Davis.

Davis was used as a starter his first year in KC (2013) and was bad enough they shifted him to the pen to close the year out. In 2013, Davis (as a starter) pitched to a 4.13 xFIP his first time through the order and batters managed a .385 wOBA—nearly 100 points worse than batters managed versus Kennedy the first time they faced him in 2018,

In 2013, Davis’ average fastball (mostly as a starter) was 93.7 MPH. The following season, after being shuffled out to the bullpen? Davis was throwing 96.7 MPH. Kennedy’s 92.4 MPH fastball might be a lot more effective coming in at 95 to 96 MPH.

I’m not saying Kennedy is the second coming of Wade Davis, but if he can get anywhere from 3 to 6 outs per outing for the Royals with increased pitch effectiveness, that can’t be bad thing, and is certainly worth more to the team than the total of 1 fWAR he’s been worth the past two seasons.

The 2018 Royals, for what it’s worth, had an awful bullpen. As a unit, they logged 542 ⅔ innings and had an ERA of 5.04, xFIP of 4.63 and were worth a total of -1.7 fWAR. If you drop 80-plus quality relief innings from Kennedy into the mix, things can only get better.

Is that worth $16.5 million in salary? No, but neither is paying Kennedy to have another year like 2017 or 2018. And it allows the Royals to take long looks at pitchers like Brad Keller, Jakob Junis and Jorge Lopez as they sort out some future rotation options.

And hey, if Kennedy can double his fWAR like Davis did from 2013 to 2014, then KC will still have an overpay on their hands, but at least he will be fun to watch.


Bob Ellis is a lifelong Royals fan. He has written in the past for Kings of Kauffman and Statliners. Follow him on Twitter @BobEllisKC

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