On Tuesday night, I called Ian Kennedy a "menace" on Twitter, and suggested that I thought he was a headhunter. After looking at more data and at the situations, I have a different opinion this morning: I don't think that Kennedy was trying to hit Yasiel Puig in the head. I also kind of doubt he was actually trying to brain Zack Greinke, though, he was certainly trying to hit him.
Needless to say, both Zack Greinke and Ian Kennedy were wrong last night. Greinke shouldn't have hit Miguel Montero in the back in retaliation for the incidental hitting of Puig, and Ian Kennedy was almost tragically in the wrong for sniping at Greinke. Both of them were bush league: That kind of crap should have no place in Major League Baseball, and I hope they're both suspended for at least six days.
All of that said, this isn't a post about who was right and who was wrong in an ethical sense. It's about what was right and what's now wrong with Ian Kennedy. In 2011, Kennedy won 21 games with a 2.88 ERA and rightfully finished high (4th) in the Cy Young voting. Despite working in the low 90s with his fastball, Kennedy managed to strike out 22 percent of the batters he faced, well above the NL average of 18 percent for starting pitchers, while posting one of the 15 best walk rates in the league. On top of it all, he managed to keep the ball in the ballpark, too. It was a perfect storm of command and control excellence, as he led the Diamondbacks to the NL West title and the second best finish in the franchise's existence.
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Alas, it was not to last. Kennedy is an extreme fly ball pitcher, and as such he relies on keeping runners off the bases by limiting his walks and hits allowed. Despite seeing his home run rate return to its historical norm last year, Kennedy remained a league average pitcher in large part because he was able to limit walks and batting average on balls in play. This year, however, not only has he continued to allow homers at an above average rate, but the precious command he needs has abandoned him. In fact, he's walking batters at a higher than league average rate. Worse, more than a quarter of the batters he faces are ripping line drives off of him, especially as he falls behind more often and leaves pitches in the middle of the plate. Nearly 10 percent of the batters he faces come away with an extra base hit. In light of that, it's easy to see why he has a 5.49 ERA and is frustrating his pitching coach with his inconsistency.
While his propensity to work inside and generate HBPs might have been a harmless byproduct when he was going well, it's a burgeoning problem for Kennedy. He led the NL in HBP last year, and is on pace (with eight HBP in 13 starts) to hit more than 20 batters this year, a mark that hasn't been reached since 2004. We saw last night how this lack of command can come back to bite him, as he unintentionally went too far up and in on Puig to put him on in front of Andre Ethier, who proceeded to slug his first homer since May 20. In 2011, Kennedy allowed 19 homers, only six in which runners were on. Last year, eleven out of 28. This year, six out of the 13 homers he's allowed have come with runners on base.
If Kennedy has lost command, as these numbers seem to indicate, he's simply not going to be an effective pitcher going forward. Worse, if he continues to try and pitch inside like he has been to right-handed hitters throughout his career, he's going to hurt somebody. Intentional or not, he almost severely injured Puig and Greinke last night -- a guy who can't control where that pitch is going to end up has no business endangering the careers of the guys he's playing against.
Maybe Kennedy is a menace, even if he doesn't mean to be. It's a cold comfort that, if he keeps pitching like this, he won't be putting those batters in danger for much longer.