Four years ago, two of the Yankees' prospects made their debuts in the majors. One was Phil Hughes, who, prior to the season, had been named the fourth-best prospect in the game by Baseball America. The other was Ian Kennedy, who didn't rate as well within the Yankees' organization as Hughes did against the rest of the minor leagues, but had a decent minor-league track record.
Today, Hughes is struggling when he's in the rotation, and might be pushed to the bullpen when the next batch of baby Yankees comes in. Kennedy, however, is thriving. Just not in New York. Instead, he's left the punishing AL East for the NL West, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and their hitter-friendly home park. His performance this season is a major reason why the Diamondbacks are now 7-1/2 games up on the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants.
Kennedy was a September call-up in 2007, and in his three starts he compiled a 1.89 ERA and 15 strikeouts over 19 innings. His control was a mess at that point, but the performance, combined with his minor-league showing that year, was enough to boost his stock in the eyes of many. Baseball America bumped him to #45 on their top 100 prospects list, after not listing him previously, and Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein made him a four-star prospect, the second-best in the Yankees' organization.
The then-24-year-old didn't get a chance to prove he was worth the new accolades, though, as he threw just 40 innings in the bigs between 2008 and 2009. He was placed on the 15-day DL with a right shoulder strain in 2008 that cost him 30 games, and then underwent surgery in May of 2009 to repair a axillary aneurism in the same shoulder, causing him to nearly miss out on the majors completely that year, and holding him to just 22 frames in the minors.
His next real chance to pitch didn't come until 2010, following a three-way trade that moved Curtis Granderson to New York, Max Scherzer, Phil Coke, and Austin Jackson to Detroit, and the pair of Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson to Arizona. Kennedy very quietly threw nearly 200 innings in his first season with the D'backs, posting an above-average ERA despite throwing his home games in a stadium that is as anti-pitcher as anything outside of the Rockie Mountains.
Kennedy has turned it on even more in 2011, bumping his strikeout rate up to 7.9 per nine, while, more importantly, cutting down his walk rate. Control has occasionally been an issue for Kennedy, as his walk rates have skewed towards average in the minors and higher than that in the majors heading into this season, but by switching up his pitch usage a bit, he appears to have fixed that problem.
In 2010, Kennedy threw his four-seamer and his two-seamer for strikes at an above-average rate. He threw over 1,300 four-seamers, and used the two the fourth-most of all of his offerings. His curveball, which he threw for strikes at a below-average rate and induced a below-average rate of swings-and-misses with, was used more often. That curve failed to set up his out pitch, the changeup, causing Kennedy's numbers to suffer: after getting hitters to 0-2 counts, for instance, Kennedy's OPS+ was just 67. For 1-2 counts, 74, and for 2-2, 67 again. He had a hard time putting hitters away sometimes, as the setup for his most effective pitches just wasn't there.
He's approached things differently in 2011, though, cutting into the usage of both his four-seamer and his curve in order to throw the two-seamer more often -- in fact, more often than any of his other pitches. Both fastballs are thrown for strikes at an above-average rate, and both induce swings-and-misses more often than your average heater. His changeup is as devastating as ever, but his curve, now used roughly half as often as before, has been more effective thanks to better setups from superior offerings. While he's had about the same level of success in pitcher's counts this year, the change in style has allowed him to perform better in counts that favor hitters, as he now uses the more accurate tools more often -- Kennedy is 10 percent above-average in hitter's counts this year.
He's not so good that his current 2.90 ERA is something we should expect out of him routinely, but, as long as he keeps the walks down, he's one of the NL West's more effective hurlers, as his 3.37 FIP indicates. Once again, he is quietly having a productive season out west, but, as the nation will see shortly if the Diamondbacks continue their surge towards October, he merits more attention than he's received.