In response to some comments on a previous post, I'd like to talk about Ian Kennedy, the third Musketeer in the Hughes/Joba/Kennedy triumvirate. He has had a rough start to his season, with an 8.53 ERA, 0-2 record, an a horrible 17:15 BB:K ratio. Terrible numbers, to be sure. However, I think he's going to be just fine.
Kennedy's hallmark as a minor league pitcher was his impeccable command of his fastball. In 2007, his only full year in the minors, he posted the following numbers (spread across A+, AA, and AAA): 12-3 W-L, 146.1 innings, 1.91 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 6 HR allowed, 163 K, and 50 BB.
These are outstanding numbers, with consistent success at all three levels. He continued to do well at the major league level last year as well in a three game cameo at the end of the season (19 IP, 1.89 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 15 SO, 9 BB).
This year, his command has been awful, as evidenced by his 17:15 BB:K ratio. So what is his problem and is it going to persist?
Looking at the Pitchf/x data (using Josh Kalk's excellent Pitchf/x tool), I spotted a few interesting things about Ian's pitching. First, a little information about his fastball. The most obvious thing that jumps out at me is that his command of it isn't quite as bad as previously indicated. He has 55 balls and 105 strikes (23 of those strikes being in play outs and 8 being hits). His other three pitches are also mediocre; if you combine his curveball, slider, and change-up, he registers 43 balls and 73 strikes (17 in play outs and 5 hits, all singles). So overall, his control isn't horrible, but it's not good either.
He's having trouble missing bats with his fastball (3.125% swing and miss but is doing ok with his other pitches (a combined 16.4% swing and miss). He's not Tim Lincecum but he's not horrible either. So what is his problem?
He's getting behind too many batters early in the count and walking too many guys. 29 of his at bats have ended in a hitter's count (any of 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1, 3-2). 34 have ended in a pitcher's count (0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2). 11 have ended in a neutral count (0-0, 1-1). Clearly, he's not getting ahead of hitters with any regularity. Hitters do much better against Kennedy after reaching hitter's counts and much worse when put into pitchers' counts. This is true for pretty much all pitchers and hitters. It is called count leverage. And once the count gets to three balls and any number of strikes, guys are teeing off on him to the tune of an OPS well over 1.200.
About 26% of at-bats against him reach a 3 ball count. Compare that to Brian Bannister (who is a somewhat similar pitcher, having decent stuff but great command and control) who only has 12.7% of at-bats reach 3 ball counts. Clearly, Kennedy needs to be more aggressive in the strike zone early in the count.
So what's the diagnosis? I believe that Kennedy will make the necessary adjustments to succeed. He proved that he has the ability to throw quality strikes in the minors and there is little reason to believe that this suddenly deserted him. Plus, he's already throwing strikes now when he's behind in the count. His fastball tails in on right handers pretty well so he can be aggressive with it early in the count.
If he takes a page out of the book that Maddux bequeathed to Brian Bannister and uses count leverage to his advantage, he should be fine.