A few years back, it looked as if Kyle Kendrick’s MLB career was headed in the wrong direction. But now, in 2014, the right-hander has proven himself as a dependable back-of-the rotation pitcher, and will be invaluable to the team as Cole Hamels works his way back from an offseason injury and the bullpen continues to scuffle.
What was the reason for Kendrick’s turnaround?
The answer is simple—Kendrick learned how to pitch to left-handers. Lefties mashed Kendrick through the first half of his career. From 2007-10, left-handers hit a hefty .320 off him, and on average, Kendrick surrendered 1.6 homers to lefties per nine innings.
But since then, Kendrick has cut that batting average against down 80 points to .240, and has dropped his HR/9 against left-handers all the way down to .6 — a full home run less per game on average.
He did it with a combination of a new pitch repertoire and increased control.
In the early part of his career, Kendrick’s only hard pitch was a flat, four-seam fastball, and he depended on it heavily. In 2007, according to FanGraphs, he threw the four-seamer 71.7 percent of the time. That number is about on par with how often most pitchers use their fastball, but the problem was it did not move, and at 90-93 mph was not hard enough to throw by good hitters. Relying on that pitch got him into trouble, and in 2010, Kendrick ditched the four-seamer all together.
That was the first step.
He turned to a sinker instead, sacrificing some velocity but adding a tailing action that enabled him to paint the inside corner with a pitch that out of his hand seems as if it will be inside to a left-handed hitter. We saw that pitch work several times against left-handed hitters in his first start of 2014, most notably to freeze the powerful Prince Fielder after two straight change ups.
Using that changeup more has been another key for Kendrick. In 2008, Kendrick used his changeup just over 4 percent of the time, favoring a slider for his off-speed pitch. The problem with only throwing a fastball and slider was that it enabled hitters to know exactly what was going to be thrown based on whether it had spin or not.
The changeup changed that. Since the pitch looks like a fastball out of the hand, it keeps hitters guessing. Kendrick dropped the slider altogether, and now throws his diving changeup just over 23 percent of the time.
As you may have noticed in his first start of 2014, he also has been working on a curveball, which he used effectively against right-handers in his strong outing, throwing it both for strikes and as a chase pitch. Just another weapon he is priming for battle.
With the ability to put batters away with these pitches, Kendrick has gone from averaging 4 K/9 from 2007-11, to 5.6 K/9 since.
The other factor that has helped Kendrick is his increase in strikes thrown. Though it may seem small, Kendrick’s percentage of strikes has increased every year of his career (ignoring 2009 when he tossed just 26 1/3 innings) since 2008. That year, he threw 61.2 percent of his pitches for strikes, and by 2013, that number grew to 66.4 percent. It doesn’t look like much, but when you are talking about 2,874 pitches in a year (his total in 2013), that is a difference of just about 100 pitches out of the zone, or close to one walk’s worth of balls per start if he makes 25 starts. It starts to add up.
His increased strikeouts and increased control has boosted his K/BB ratio every season from 2008 (1.19) to a career-high 2.37 strikeouts for every walk in 2012. That number dipped only slightly in 2013, to 2.34.
It has also allowed him to go deeper into games. Kendrick had one complete game in his first five seasons, but has three in his last two, including his only two career shutouts. Last season also brought his career-high in innings pitched, with 182.
The adjustments he has made have had a direct impact on his other value stats. He went from having an abysmal Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 5.04 from 2007-11, down to a more respectable 4.26 since. His WAR in 2008 was -1.5, followed by two years of .3. Since then, he has averaged 1.43 per season with a high of 1.8 in 2008. It is also worth noting, though it is not the best measuring statistic, that his ERA from 2007-11 was 4.65, and since is more than half a run lower at 4.05. Not terrible for a back-end pitcher, and certainly a notable improvement.
Imagine the pitching staff right now if he hadn’t improved his game. Kendrick is not going to wow anybody with his stuff, but he has grown into a dependable pitcher who can keep the team in almost every game, and he will continue to be a quiet, yet important piece of this team as the season progresses.