The reigning World Series Champion Kansas City Royals have had a rather successful offseason. They lost Ben Zobrist to free agency, but were able to retain the services of left fielder Alex Gordon. And that might prove to be the better move for the Royals. More on that in a bit. To shore up a rotation that saw the departure of second-half-hero Johnny Cueto, the R0yals have now given Ian Kennedy a five-year, $70 million contract, with an opt-out after two years. It’s a somewhat curious contract on the surface, even ignoring the opt-out for the moment, but I think I understand the Royals’ logic on this one.
Recently, I wrote a piece on the best free agent starting pitchers that remained on the market. Ian Kennedy was second on that list, illustrating the fact that “best” is a relative term. In that article I opined that Kennedy wasn’t likely to secure a deal longer than three years, nor for more than around $10 million AAV. I was way off, but my reasoning was that he’s just not be very good. Here are his last five seasons:
There are some good years in there. But recently, it’s been mostly bad. The main problem Kennedy has is giving up home runs. Your immediate reaction may be to extol the virtues of pitching in the friendly confines of Kauffman Stadium. It is spacious. But so was Petco Park, and that didn’t stop Kennedy from posting his career worst HR/9 in 2015. The optimist will note that season’s HR/9 was so far out of line with even Kennedy’s generous career home run numbers that it’s possible, perhaps even probable, his HR rate should drop back down some.
Kennedy does do two things well though: make starts consistently over a full season and strike batters out. Perhaps to the Royals, his consistency in making starts is uniquely valuable.
If you look back at the two years they’ve made the Postseason, you’ll notice two things about that pitching staff. First is how good their bullpen has been. They had the second lowest ERA in 2015, for example. The second thing you’ll notice is how mediocre to actually bad their rotation has been. Their starting five had the 9th highest ERA in 2015, for example. Here’s evidence that the rotation’s overall quality is less important to the Royals than it is for some other teams.
So perhaps they’re more concerned about a starting pitcher’s ability to make every start, rather then his ability to pitch effectively. That doesn’t mean that Kennedy is a bad pitcher – it just means that perhaps he doesn’t need to make any large improvements to be worth his $50 million contract.
There is one thing that could greatly affect his production now that he’s a Royal, and that’s outfield defense. Giving his home run rate you might have guessed he’s a fly ball pitcher, and you’d be right. That’s not automatically a bad thing though. Fly balls are the easiest batted ball to convert into an out – assuming it doesn’t leave the park. And the Royals have one of the best outfield defenses in baseball. Their combined +32 DRS in 2015 was third best in baseball, and their +35.6 UZR was just fractions of a point behind first place.
When I first heard Kennedy was getting five years and $70 million, I scoffed. I’m still not sold this is a good deal. But I do think the Royals are uniquely designed to get the best out of him. This is where the opt-out comes into play. After two seasons, Kennedy can choose to become a free agent. If indeed the Royals are able to get the best out of him by then, it’s very likely he’ll choose to become a free agent. Whether the Royals view that as a bad thing is anyone’s guess, but it does take them off the hook for the three years of risk. And giving Kennedy’s recent history of mediocrity, that may be a good thing.
If the Royals felt they needed to add depth to their starting rotation, I think at this point in the offseason they made the best decision that was left to them. I had Yovani Gallardo rated higher, but the Royals are better suited to the flyball pitcher that Kennedy is. If they get lucky and he can keep his home run rate down, they’ve probably got themselves a solid mid-rotation starter. If not, then at least they have a starter they can count on for 30+ starts a year. And with their bullpen, that’s all they really need.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs