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It’s generally accepted that the American League is the less favorable league for pitchers. I don’t think that’s breaking ground. We’re prone to upgrade pitchers that move to the senior circuit and discount those that move in the opposite direction. This is especially true if a pitcher who wasn’t dominant in the National League switches over. That’s exactly what has happened with Ian Kennedy and Jordan Zimmermann, but through three starts, they’ve exceeded expectations and their past performance.
To be fair to Zimmermann, we’ll start with him. He’s a more highly regarded pitcher than Kennedy with an extended track record of good, bordering on great, performance. Zimmermann was a consensus top 30 pitcher heading into 2016 who is 3-0 through his first three starts without allowing a run. He ranks eighth amongst starting pitchers in points leagues, and two of the pitchers ahead of him have made four starts already.
What’s amazing about Zimmermann’s start is that he’s striking out fewer batters and walking more than his career averages. I’d understand if you thought that screamed “fluke!” I generally would as well. After watching him pitch on Wednesday night though, it’s at least partially understandable. Zimmermann was painting the corners, and the numbers show much of the same.
According to Fangraphs, Zimmermann has thrown about 50 percent of his pitches in the zone for his career. This year that number is up to 58.5. But these aren’t grooved fastballs, as evidenced by the fact that hitters are swinging at only 48 percent of his offerings, the lowest since 2010. It also helps explain his minuscule (14.3 percent) rate of hard contact allowed.
It’s also true that Zimmermann can be doing some things really well while also being unsustainable. His 100 percent strand rate and his homerless streak won’t last. It’s not a question of if his 0.00 ERA will regress, but how far. The answer is probably not as far as people think. Zimmermann has a stretch from 2012-14 where he won an average of 15 games a year with an ERA south of three and only 7.3 K/9. That type of success in 2016 is absolutely repeatable with the way he is pitching.
Ian Kennedy doesn’t have that great history to fall back on. In fact, over the past four seasons he has been mediocre at best, with a 4.19 ERA. His K rate is considerably better than Zimmermann’s, but that’s about it. In 2016 his K rate (9.5 K/9) is still better than Zimmermann’s, but he’s doing the other things almost as well too.
Kennedy has long been a fly ball pitcher and you would think that would have played well in Petco Park. Unfortunately a recent change in park factors and the Padres atrocious outfield defense conspired against him. So it makes sense that a move to an even better park and arguably the best outfield defense in baseball would help Kennedy. Boy has it.
Through three starts, Kennedy has seen his fly ball rate balloon to 51.1 percent, which would be a career high. As you might imagine, that’s led to a low BABIP (.255), which is partially responsible for him outperforming his peripherals with a 1.35 ERA. Needless to say, if you can strike out a batter per inning, maintain a BABIP against below .280, and keep the ball in the yard … you’re going to have an exceptional year. That last part might be the problem.
Kennedy has only given up one home run this year, which is a nice change from the 31 he gave up in 2015. But is it sustainable? The 37.5 percent hard contact rate might say no, but it stands to reason that Kennedy will give up fewer home runs than he did a year ago. That’s partially because no one maintains a 17.2 percent home-run rate and partially because his collective park factor will be much better with half of his starts coming at Kauffman Stadium.
The other thing to watch with Kennedy will be his pitch selection. He’s throwing his fastball more often and more effectively than he did last year. He’s also pounding the strike zone at a rate (47.3 percent) that is higher than any year since his career year of 2011. If Kennedy can maintain his K rate and the Royals defense continues to do its thing, there’s no reason he can’t have his best season since 2011, even with the expected home run regression.
Both of these pitchers look like prime regression candidates ,and they most certainly will over the coming months. But regression doesn’t mean they’re going to bad moving forward, or even what they were last year necessarily. If someone in your league is looking to sell high on either pitcher, I’d hear them out. They may not be selling as high as they think they are.