While every team is looking for bullpen help pretty much at all times, there are different levels of need, and this is not a great offseason to be particularly in need of relief help. The Boston Red Sox seem to be in that position, especially if they plan on having Garrett Whitlock focus on staying stretched out as a starter. The free agent market doesn’t have a whole lot of options, with pitchers like Ryan Tepera and Collin McHugh figuring among the top potential options. Given this relative lack of proven talent, front offices will need to identify players they can try and squeeze some extra value from, and Ian Kennedy could have that potential.
The veteran righty does not fit the typical profile as a pitcher you’d look for a breakout from, and that might not be the right wording to use for him, but whatever you want to call it, Kennedy can fit. He has been in the league for a long time, first breaking in with the New York Yankees way back in 2007. He’s bounced around plenty since then, spending the vast majority of his career as a starter. There were a few good seasons in there, but after spending most of his career as a back-end arm, he switched to the bullpen with the Kansas City Royals in 2019.
As a reliever, he’s been a different kind of pitcher, and in 2019 looked like a big-time find by the Royals. That season, the righty pitched to a 3.41 ERA with a 2.99 FIP over 63 1⁄3 innings, all in relief. His strikeout rate jumped up to a career-high 27 percent, and his walk-rate to a career-low 6.4 percent. In his age-34 season it seemed Kennedy’s career was rejuvenated. That optimism fell in a tough 2020, but last season he recovered a bit, pitching to a 3.20 ERA, but with a FIP up at 4.75.
That split between ERA and FIP points to the complication with Kennedy, whose results have been outstanding in his only two full (i.e. 162 games) seasons, but with some real concerns. Since starting to throw in short outings, his strikeout rate has remained up, not in elite levels for today’s game, but certainly sitting safely above-average. His walk rate has climbed a bit in the last two seasons, but he’s still better than average there as well. Where he struggles is in quality of contact, as he gets hit extremely hard with a lot of fly balls. That naturally leads to a whole lot of home runs, with 19 over 70 1⁄3 innings since the start of 2020.
Home run issues is not exactly the most promising issue you want to hear of for a pitcher coming to the American League East, and that is a concern. Kennedy would be added with the hope that he can at least contribute important situations, and a good chunk of those over the course of a season will happen in New York, Baltimore, and Toronto, which are all tough home run parks for pitchers. On the other hand, Fenway is actually a decent home run park for pitchers, though a pitcher with Kennedy’s contact profile can give up a lot of extra base hits.
If the Red Sox were to consider bringing in Kennedy, it would have to be with an idea that they can fix those contact issues, whether that be by keeping the ball on the ground a bit more often (only two pitchers with at least 50 innings had a lower ground ball rate in 2021) or softening up the contact. There is a potential path a coaching staff could take there with the veteran.
The big reason this switch to the bullpen has worked out so well for him so far is that he can now safely lean heavily on his fastball in a way he couldn’t as a starter. It’s his best pitch, and easily his most often used. Unfortunately, at a certain point you need to have a second pitch you can count on, and Kennedy has yet to find that. In 2019, his cutter got good results, but the expected metrics based on quality of contact indicated he got a bit lucky there. Sure enough, the production against the pitch improved last season, and he barely threw the pitch last season.
Instead, in 2021 he leaned more heavily than ever on the fastball, throwing it an absurd 82.5 percent of the time. Only three pitchers in baseball threw more fastballs last season, and Kennedy didn’t throw any other pitch more than 10 percent of the time. That can be seen as something of a blank canvas.
Part of the reason the Rays have been able to build effective bullpens out of no-name pitchers year after year is finding a pitcher they can tweak enough to unlock the maximum potential of the pitcher. Kennedy could potentially fit that profile. He has one very good pitch at his disposal, and has shown he can miss bats while keeping his walks in check as a reliever. The key is finding a good secondary pitch to keep batters just a bit more off-balance and limit the hard contact. This isn’t the kind of bet I’d want to make with a long guaranteed contract, but for a one-year deal on relatively cheap money, the Red Sox can try and unlock a new level in a pitcher on the back nine of his career.