Friday, January 18, 2008

Ian Kennedy - a young Greg Maddux?

Maybe, maybe not...

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if you’re a Yankees fan, you’ve got to be pretty excited right now with all these young pitchers coming up through the farm system. It reminds me a lot of when the Braves started their streak of division titles back in the early 90’s. They had a young John Smoltz, a young Tom Glavine, a very young Steve Avery, and later added a young Greg Maddux. Between those four guys and a long list of offensive talent that included Terry Pendleton, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Fred McGriff, David Justice, Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, Rafael Furcal, and many others, the 90’s was the time to be a Braves fan. They don’t have the pitching anymore, and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to dominant the National League East anytime in the near future unless they address that need. But right now, the Yankees have Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain, Phillip Hughes and Ian Kennedy, with the possibility of adding depth through trades or free agency. The market value of just those four pitchers is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of at least $40 million a year, if not more. Depending on how Chamberlain and Hughes perform, that number could be closer to $60 million, and possibly $80 million by the time their shot at free agency rolls around. I never thought I’d say it, but it almost looks like the Yankees are turning into one of those low budget home-grown-talent teams based around a well planned scouting approach. Obviously, the Yankees still need an established dominant pitcher for the play-offs, but if they keep the work loads of their younger pitchers relatively light, then I think one of their young prospects will step up and be a great Game 1 starter.

With Chamberlain and Hughes, the debate isn’t so much about if they’ll be any good, but rather how good they will eventually be. They’ve both proven themselves during their time in the minors, and they’ve both been impressive in the appearances they’ve made for the big league team, so the only real question is how long will it take to fulfill their potential.

When it comes to Ian Kennedy, there really doesn’t seem to be a clear cut decision about how good he is. The Yankees recently tried their very best to use him as trade bait in the Johan Santana mess, so it would make sense that they would try to convince the Twins and everybody else that Kennedy is a rising star. However, they couldn’t run the risk of over-hyping Kennedy and then have the Twins scoff at their sales pitch, or even worse they ran the risk of over-hyping Kennedy and then face the possibility of him never meeting the expectations of a deceived and unforgiving Yankees fan base. Either way, I think the Yankees have had to be cautious about the impression they give about Kennedy. I think the best thing they could probably do is put him in positions where he can succeed early, and then either trade him or hope he keeps developing (actually, I think that’s exactly what they tried to do this past season by working Kennedy into some late season starts, but the sample size was too small to convince other teams or Yankees fans of his potential). Regardless of what the Yankees hype-machine is or is not saying about Kennedy, we have his stats to tell us the real story. For quick analytical purposes, I’m just going to throw out a few pitchers with their minor league average stats and then we’ll take it from there.

Player K/9 BB/9 GB% H/9

Ian Kennedy 9.97 3.14 39% 5.62

Phillip Hughes 10.18 2.16 49.8% 5.56

Joba Chamberlain 13.79 2.76 53.7% 6.33

Tom Gorzelanny 8.98 3 43.3% 7.08

Ian Snell 8.46 2.13 43.5% 8.06

Kyle Davies 9 3.25 39.3% 7.56

Mike Pelfrey 8.53 3.17 53.5% 8.18

Out of these 7 pitchers, Kennedy ranks last in groundball percentage, and he ranks fifth in BB/9. His K/9 rate and H/9 rate are high, and scouts have praised Kennedy for being able to locate his off-speed pitches well, even making comparisons to Greg Maddux. But to be fair to Maddux, he went through the minor leagues at a much younger age and maintained a groundball percentage of almost 60% throughout his career. Also, while Kennedy was pitching through AA and AAA ball as a 22 year old, Maddux was pitching his second full season in the major leagues at the age of 22 with a K/9 of 5.06, a BB/9 of 2.83, and a GB% of exactly 60%. So the Maddux comparisons aren’t all that accurate. If anyone looks like Greg Maddux right now it’s Fausto Carmona, who just finished his second full season in the majors at the age of 23 with a K/9 of 5.73, a BB/9 of 2.55, and a GB% of 66%.

My biggest problem with Kennedy is that his power stuff isn’t good enough to blow major league hitters away and his off-speed stuff doesn’t result in enough groundballs, which tells me he’s leaving pitches high in the zone and isn’t getting much downward movement on anything. In the minors, those types of pitches were being popped up and usually didn’t amount to much, but major league hitters won’t be so merciful, especially in the AL East.

So what can the Yankees fans realistically expect from Kennedy? Probably #4 or #5 starter stuff for a few years, with a chance of becoming a solid #2 in the next 5 years. He’s much closer to being Mike Pelfrey or Tom Gorzelanny than Greg Maddux, which gives him a projected ERA for the next 2 years of around 5.00. That would probably put him in a good position to win 10 or 11 games next season pitching for the Yankees, while losing about the same number. Not bad, not great, just kind of average, but in a few years he’ll start to figure things out and if the Yankees can hold on to Hughes and Chamberlain until then, they might have two #1 starters pitching in the #1 and #2 spots and a solid #2 pitcher in the #3 spot, and that would make them a great playoff team.

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