Commentary

D-backs have a keeper in Ian Kennedy

In second season with Arizona, righty has blossomed into an ace for NL West leaders

Originally Published: August 18, 2011
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The people who helped guide Arizona pitcher Ian Kennedy through his formative years in professional baseball take considerable pride in his performance this season. When a smart and earnest young pitcher blossoms in his new surroundings, it's a plot twist even his former employers can appreciate from afar.

But when Kennedy's old New York Yankees acquaintances check out his latest "SportsCenter'' highlight, many of them emerge with the same nagging question: What's the deal with the facial hair?

[+] EnlargeIan Kennedy
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireIan Kennedy is tied with Roy Halladay for the National League lead with 15 wins.

"You have to ask him about the beard,'' said Mark Newman, New York's senior vice president of baseball operations. "I don't know what's going on with that. He's starting to look kind of professorial.''

Kennedy, acquired by former Diamondbacks general manager Josh Byrnes in December 2009 as part of a seven-player, three-team trade that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees and Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer to Detroit, initially grew the beard out of laziness. Then his wife expressed a fondness for it, his teammates commented favorably and he grew progressively more comfortable with the two-tone look -- brown hair complemented by a red scruff covering his cheeks.

The whole routine was sort of liberating for a refugee from baseball's most corporate franchise, which places tight restraints on personal statements through hair and jewelry. Remember the Don Mattingly haircut staredown in the Bronx in 1991, and the brief flap over Raul Mondesi's earring when the Yankees acquired him from Toronto by trade in 2002?

"Everybody from the Yankees texts me about it,'' Kennedy said. "Scotty Aldred was my pitching coach in Triple-A. He texted me real early on and said, 'Good job tonight -- and that's a terrible beard.'"

Kennedy, once acclaimed as a hotshot prospect with the Yankees, is finding that freedom of expression transcends a man's personal grooming habits. He's pitching in a smaller market outside the media glare for a team that ranks 22nd in the majors in attendance, but his name recognition is increasing by the day.

At age 26, Kennedy is becoming everything the Yankees hoped for when they signed him to a $2.25 million bonus as the 21st pick in the 2006 draft. He carries a 15-3 record and a 3.12 ERA into Thursday night's start against the Phillies, and he has left the early Big Apple hype behind for something far more tangible and gratifying. As Diamondbacks pitching coach Charles Nagy observes, "He's set the pace for this staff since Opening Day.''

Kennedy and fellow righty Daniel Hudson have given Arizona manager Kirk Gibson stability and a combined 34 quality starts at the top of the rotation. Throw in a surgical bullpen revamp by new GM Kevin Towers, a Gibson-induced attitude adjustment on the field and in the clubhouse, a big year from right fielder Justin Upton and a 23-13 record in one-run games, and the Diamondbacks are displaying some serious staying power. They lead the fading Giants by 2½ games in the National League West, and they've survived a potentially devastating season-ending ankle injury to shortstop Stephen Drew.

"They're a higher-energy club now,'' Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "They run hard. They play hard. They hit the ball out of the yard. Their pitching is definitely underrated, and their bullpen has kind of come from nowhere. They've been earning their way. They're good.''

At an unimposing 6-foot, 190 pounds, Kennedy doesn't fit the profile of a classic staff ace. He has an average fastball velocity of 90.1 mph, so the temptation is to pigeonhole him as a short, right-handed "finesse'' pitcher. And there's no question that command and control form the basis for his success.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Kennedy has thrown his fastball for strikes 70 percent of the time this season. That's the 10th-highest rate among the 183 NL pitchers who've thrown at least 250 fastballs. "He could do an Instructional League video for kids on how to work both sides of the plate,'' an NL scout said.

Ian understands who he is and what he's doing, and he understands what he needs to do to get hitters out.

-- Yankees senior VP of baseball
operations Mark Newman

But Kennedy is more than just a pitch-to-contact guy who's doing it with smoke, mirrors and a freakishly low batting average on balls in play. He has a higher strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.16) than Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Jon Lester. And the ancillary numbers show that either hitters have trouble picking up the ball or his stuff has more zip than the gun readings suggest.

• When opposing hitters swing at Kennedy's fastball, they miss 14.1 percent of the time. That ranks 54th out of 141 starters who've thrown at least 500 fastballs this season.

• Kennedy has generated a 33.3 percent miss rate when hitters swing at his changeup. That's 28th best among 144 starters who have thrown 100 or more changeups.

• He's been more effective against lefties this year, reduced his walk and home run rates, and made strides with both his cutter and his curveball.

• Kennedy also has benefited from pitching against the largely inoffensive NL West clubs this season. He is 6-0 with a 2.06 ERA against the Dodgers, San Francisco, San Diego and Colorado.

Kennedy's success comes as no great surprise to his supporters in New York, who thought he had the potential to be an effective pitcher in the AL East or any other division. Newman dug out the team's old scouting reports the other day, and said scouting director Damon Oppenheimer and area scout Jeff Patterson were "dead on'' in their assessment of Kennedy when the Yankees drafted him out of USC.

"We have a template in this game for what a fourth starter should look like, and that's Ian if you're just talking about his size or his gun readings,'' Newman said. "But when you get underneath the hood of his performance, you see there's a lot more to it.

"He has one of the better fastballs in the business, and that's not just a seat-of-the-pants assessment by an old-school baseball guy. We measure this stuff based on what hitters do to the baseball, and they don't do much to his fastball.''

Although Kennedy's 90 mph velocity is middle of the pack, he touches 92-93 and has the capacity to dial it up when circumstances call for it. He has deception, late movement, and the resourcefulness and chutzpah to throw his changeup when the count is 2-0 and hitters are sitting on the hard stuff.

Kennedy's command and consistent mechanics are a product of both nature and nurture. He played with future Rockies third baseman Ian Stewart on a powerhouse La Quinta High School team in Westminster, Calif., and pitched for one of America's most accomplished college coaches, Mike Gillespie. Gillespie, 71, who coached at USC from 1987 to 2006, also helped produce the likes of Mark Prior and Barry Zito. To this day, when preteens ask Kennedy when they should start throwing breaking balls, he recalls how he did nothing but pump fastballs and pitch to spots as a little leaguer.

Newspaper profiles routinely make reference to Kennedy's cerebral approach and fondness for the pitcher-batter chess match. As sacrilegious as this sounds, Kennedy has generated comparisons to Mike Mussina and Greg Maddux for his ability to devise a game plan and navigate a lineup.

Kennedy owes a debt of gratitude to Mussina by osmosis. As a rookie with the Yankees in 2008, he watched Mussina grind out his first career 20-win season with diminished stuff. Mussina's ability to adapt to opposing lineups and do more with less at age 39 made an indelible impression on Kennedy.

Kennedy has always been fascinated by Maddux's approach to the game but has yet to meet his pitching guru even though they're both Scott Boras clients. Now that Boras has negotiated his big 2011 draft deals for Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon & Co., he might want to arrange a lunch date between Kennedy and Maddux before he turns his attention to Prince Fielder's free-agent push.

"Scott always talks about him, and I'll say, 'Scott, I'd really like to meet him some day,'" Kennedy said. "I know [Maddux] loves to golf. He'd probably kick my butt, but I'd like to do it one day.''

If that golf comment sounds self-effacing, it's par for the course for Kennedy. In 2007 he married former USC basketball player Allison Jaskowiak. Ask Kennedy who would win a one-on-one basketball matchup between the two, and he votes for himself, but only because Allison recently gave birth to their first child, daughter Nora Rose, and hasn't quite returned to prime hoops shape.

"My shot is terrible,'' Kennedy said. "If we were going to play H-O-R-S-E, she'd probably win.''

As Kennedy continues to thrive on the mound, it's tempting to examine his career arc and wonder whether the Yankees traded away the wrong guy for Granderson, who has blossomed into an MVP candidate in New York. Phil Hughes won 18 games last season but has struggled with a tired arm this year. Joba Chamberlain has 386 strikeouts in 382 career innings but is currently working his way back from Tommy John surgery.

Kennedy, meanwhile, posted an 8.17 ERA with the Yankees in 2008 and missed much of the 2009 season with an aneurysm in his right shoulder before finding his way in Arizona. With the benefit of hindsight, he's convinced those speed bumps made him a better pitcher and a stronger person.

"There's some good that comes from playing in New York, because the fans are so loyal there and they love their Yankees,'' Kennedy said. "But it can be tough. I got booed off the field there, and the next outing, I got a standing ovation. But I wouldn't trade it for anything because it helped me grow up and be who I am today.''

And what precisely is that? Let's start with a budding All-Star for one of Major League Baseball's most pleasant surprise teams, and a pitcher with an impressive grasp of both his strengths and weaknesses.

"Ian understands who he is and what he's doing, and he understands what he needs to do to get hitters out,'' Newman said.

Look beneath the hood -- or rather, the beard -- and that's as clean-cut a scouting report as you can get.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer