It’s been a while since we last did one of these, so I figured it was time to dust off the free agent target series. Last time, I profiled Michael Pineda and wondered whether he still had anything left in the tank to offer his former employers. Today, let’s revisit another former promising young Yankee pitcher now in the twilight of his career: Ian Kennedy.
2021 Stats: 55 games, 56.1 IP, 3.20 ERA, 4.75 FIP, 4.45 xFIP, 9.9 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 0.0 fWAR
Kennedy was a member of the once-promising trio of young starters upon whose shoulders the Yankees placed the responsibility of carrying the 2008 starting rotation. Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Kennedy were perhaps prematurely thrust into the New York spotlight, a fearsome burden for such inexperienced youngsters. And despite an encouraging major league debut (in old Yankee Stadium!) as a September call-up in 2007 in which he earned the victory giving up one run on five hits with six strikeouts in seven innings, things didn’t quite pan out as Kennedy or the Yankees hoped.
The young righty struggled the most of his compatriots. He missed the end of the 2007 season with an upper back injury and floundered to the point of demotion to Triple-A to start the 2008 season. Kennedy finished that campaign with an 8.17 ERA, and ultimately was traded to the Diamondbacks after pitching a single MLB inning in 2009.
Kennedy turned his career around immediately upon arriving in Arizona including a 4.4 fWAR campaign in 2011 in whoch he went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA and 198 strikeouts en route to a fourth place Cy Young finish. He followed this up with a handful of serviceable seasons as a starter before his career hit a wall after being traded to San Diego and then signing with Kansas City thanks to a series of injuries.
That’s what made his career renaissance as a late-inning reliever all the more impressive. Kennedy converted to a closer in 2019 with the Royals, and placed in the top-ten in MLB with 30 saves while sporting the 14th-best FIP (2.99) among qualified relievers. Even as he enters his age-37 season, there are several reasons to be intrigued by Kennedy, starting with his fastball.
Kennedy throws his fastball four mph faster in the latter half of his thirties than he did in his early twenties with the Yankees. He averages better than 94 mph on the four-seamer and sits in the 87th percentile in both average spin rate and active spin with the pitch. It is this spin profile that gives the pitch the much-sought-after late riding life, exhibiting the 27th-most rise of any four-seamer in 2021. Taken together, these characteristics create an elite fastball that graded out as the 19th best four-seamer in 2021 and 27th-best in 2019 by Statcast’s run value metric.
All this being said, I doubt the Yankees will have very much interest in a reunion with Kennedy, nor should they. I think they have learned their lesson to not tie up significant percentages of payroll in aging late-inning relievers, especially given the success they had in developing low cost players into high-leverage weapons last season. Nostalgia is not always a bad thing, but in this case would be wise to let the past be the past.