Command turns Kennedy into Cy contender
September, 14, 2011
By Steve Berthiaume | ESPN.com
Tony Medina/Getty ImagesIan Kennedy is 19-4 with a 2.99 ERA and ranks seventh in the NL in strikeouts.This past weekend the Arizona Diamondbacks celebrated the 10th anniversary of their 2001 World Series championship team -- a team led Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, who combined to win 43 games that season and were the only two pitchers to receive first-place votes for the National League Cy Young Award, which Johnson won with his staggering total of 372 strikeouts. Now a decade later, a new Diamondbacks Desert Duo of Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson is leading Arizona back to the postseason and Kennedy, the NL's first 19-game winner, is worthy of Cy Young consideration.
The Diamondbacks beat the Dodgers 5-4 in 10 innings Tuesday night. Kennedy's first attempt at his 20th win wound up as his first no-decision since June 27, putting his record at 19-4 with a 2.99 ERA as he looks to his next chance for win No. 20 in a home start next week against the Pirates. The 35 combined wins by Kennedy and Hudson is the most in the National League and trails only the Tigers' 37 wins from Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Over his last 13 starts, Kennedy's record is a remarkable 11-1 with a 2.42 ERA. He's 9-0 on the season against the NL West, and the Elias Sports Bureau says, under the NL West's current configuration, only three pitchers have started 9-0 against the rest of the division -- all Diamondbacks: Schilling in 2002, Brandon Webb in 2008 and Kennedy in 2011.
Kennedy certainly isn't flashy but he can be dominant. His 182 strikeouts are seventh in the NL, despite an average fastball release velocity of 90.1 mph, which ranks just 127th among major league starting pitchers. Kennedy wins by pounding the strike zone: 1,728 times so far this season, the fourth-highest total of pitches in the strike zone in all of baseball, behind only Cliff Lee, David Price and Justin Masterson. "He's so good with his fastball that he can pitch strictly off that," his teammate Hudson told me in a text message Tuesday night. "His command to all parts of the strike zone allows him to change eye levels with hitters which then makes his other pitches, which are really good as well, that much better. He's fun to watch."
Kennedy has a good changeup, which he throws about 15 percent of the time, that arrives at an average of 81.1 mph with split-finger action for an effective out pitch. What makes him unique however, is an ability to work up in the strike zone while throwing 70 percent of his fastballs for strikes. Opponents, who hit .268 versus Kennedy's fastball last season, are hitting .231 against the pitch this season while his OPS on the fastball has dropped from .825 to .648. Why do hitters have so much trouble with a 90-mph fastball thrown consistently in the hitting zone? For the answer, I went to Schilling.
"There's a difference between command and control," Schilling said. "Control is the ability to throw strikes, which everybody in the big leagues has to have. Command is the ability to control strikes inside the strike zone and that's a different level and I think he's gotten to where his fastball is multiple pitches for him and if you throw the ball 91 to 93 miles per hour, that can be an incredibly effective pitch if you have other stuff to go with it. He's always had decent secondary stuff, but it's become above-average in my mind because of his fastball command."
Schilling was among the many 2001 Diamondbacks who returned for last weekend's 10th anniversary championship celebration and said the Kennedy/Hudson pairing has helped both pitchers, just as pairing up helped Johnson and himself a decade earlier. "I lived it," Schilling said. "I know what it did for me, it was a huge positive for me. I fed off that. The mentality is, you want the guy to go out ahead of you and throw a two-hit shutout because you're going to go out and throw a one-hit shutout. Early on, I think that they started to get a taste of that and I think as the season has gone on, now that these games are really important, the bar has raised. I think they're feeding off each other at the perfect time for Arizona."
Hudson agreed, saying about Kennedy, "His confidence this year has really rubbed off on me because I see him throw well basically every start and it gives me something to try and out-do or top. Most of the time unsuccessfully but it's still fun to have a friendly competition with him. It's made me a better pitcher." Hudson will attempt to win his 17th game Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium against Los Angeles lefty Clayton Kershaw, who is among Kennedy's chief Cy Young competitors.
Kennedy certainly shouldn't be considered the Cy Young favorite. However, with he and Hudson leading the way, Arizona has won 18 of 21 games since Aug. 23 to run away with the NL West. Now as Arizona gets ready for a postseason run, this latest Diamondbacks Desert Duo may tap into the Johnson/Schilling mojo from a decade earlier for a return engagement in the World Series.
Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.