IPK <3 Fastballs

Here’s Mark Feinsand (Daily News) on Ian Kennedy (08/10/08) :

Kennedy will make his next start for Triple-A Scranton on Wednesday, but his primary focus won’t be shutting the other team down. Instead, he’ll work on his sinker, curveball and slider, trying to refine the three pitches regardless of the results.

“It’s still making quality pitches, but it’s working on location, working on his breaking ball when he’s behind in the count, not being afraid to throw it over,” Joe Girardi said. “Just trying to develop him as a starter.” “Not focus on results, but rather the results of what I’m working on,” Kennedy said. “Here, you can’t work on it, because we’re in a pennant race.”

Last season, Ian Kennedy fell in love with his fastball.

Actually, it was sort of like a grade school crush, in that it was both regretful and embarrassing. Obviously, IPK is not known for his overpowering fastball, however, in 39.2 IP, he managed to throw it 68.1% of the time in 2008. Mind you, this is a fastball that actually averaged 89 mph. If you look at the rest of the ’08 rotation, comparatively, IPK — in a limited stint — went with his fastball significantly more than the veteran Andy Pettitte did, and Andy’s fastball clocked in at 88.5 mph, on average. In fact, in terms of starters, IPK threw the highest percentage of fastballs on the team outside of sinker specialist, Chien-Ming Wang (77%) and the walking crap shoot that is Sidney Ponson (72.3%).

Here’s Kennedy describing his affinity for the fastball in ’06 :

“The fastball in the past has been the pitch to go to,” Kennedy said. “I feel I can throw it on the black part of the plate at your knees and you can’t hit it even though you know it’s coming.

What does this mean, exactly? Well, based on Kennedy’s “production” last season, it’s a notable issue.

IPK simply cannot throw that many fastballs and expect to have an effective career in the majors — not at the big league level. 89 mph (on average) isn’t terrible, nor is it anything to sneeze at, but, when your better pitches are your breaking pitches — the curveball, slider, changeup — then it’s time to set the “heater” on the shelf and reconsider your pitch selection. Because of ’08 Kennedy’s desire to throw the fastball at such a high percentage, his secondary pitches were practically nonexistent. He ended up throwing the curve 9.3% of the time, while going with the changeup — his best pitch — 16.2% of the time. Meanwhile, the slider, which was thrown 15.2% of the time in a successful albeit limited 2007 in the Bronx, was pushed into the recesses of IPK’s repertoire, appearing only 6.4% of the time in 2008. Essentially, IPK cannot afford to continue relying upon this particular pitching pattern if he intends to stick around (…with the Yankees).

He (or Molina or Posada) needs to keep his fastball love in check, limit its use, and vary what is else thrown. Instead of an excessive percentage of fastballs (even if it’s a sinker), the slider, the curve, the change, they all need to be featured prominently or at least incorporated into his bag of tricks a bit more. For example and for comparison purposes (again), Kennedy’s stuff and style has always reminded me of Andy Sonnanstine of the TB Rays. Sonnanstine threw his 87 mph fastball 38% of the time in 2008, opting to throw a lot more breaking stuff — he also won 13 games and had a 3.91FIP. This could have been a reaction to 2007, when Sonnanstine threw his fastball 51.4% and amassed a 6-10 record (4.26 FIP ). It appears as though he tweaked his approach after a tough campaign, reining in the fastball in his second big league season (30% of Sonnanstine’s ’08 pitches were also cutters, a variation of the fastball, although not a straight fastball, so the approach still changed when compared to 2007, where 6.3% of his pitches were cutters).

When asked about Sonnanstine’s skill set, Joe Maddon, manager of the Rays, responded with the following :

“Some guys that have these tremendous arms and throw for high velocities don’t have nearly the conviction per pitch that he does,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I think therein lies the difference with his success: Before the ball is thrown, he believes it’s going to be successful for him. Some other guys just don’t know. And that’s why I think this guy’s good.”

“I don’t want this to come out wrong,” Sonnanstine said, “but it’s like you have to know you are better than the best player out there, even if you aren’t. So what I’m going to be throwing to one of the best hitters in the game, I have to know I’m going to get him out.”

If I were Ian Kennedy, I’d keep the fastballs in check, listen to Joe Maddon and learn from Andy Sonnanstine. Next time he feels the need to “throw the heat,” I hope that he throws the slider or the curveball, instead (and with conviction). From everything I’ve read, he’s a very smart pitcher and made some adjustments while pitching effectively in Puerto Rico. Hopefully that includes incorporating all of his pitches.

10 thoughts on “IPK <3 Fastballs

  1. Moshe Mandel

    Great, great post. I think he has more talent than Sonnanstine, but the comparison is apt. He needs the fastball to be a “keep them honest” pitch, not his primary out pitch. If he can get it down to 35%, that would be good.

  2. Chris H.

    If he can get it down to 50% and just increase the use of his other pitches, I think he’ll be a solid pitcher. Sonnanstine started throwing a lot of cutters after 2007, too, and from what I’ve seen, a lot of guys that don’t have an overpowering fastball mix in a cutter. If I was IPK, it could be something to think about.

    • Moshe Mandel

      He already has too many pitches. Jack of all trades, master of none.

      • Chris H.

        Ha, that is true (sad, but true).

  3. Tom Gaffney

    Great article. I’m hoping that IPK winds up more like another Tampa pitcher (James Shields). I’d have to disagree slightly about him not having any one pitch that stands out. I really love his changeup when it’s working. It dives like crazy away from lefties and into righties.

    • Chris H.

      Yea, the vulcan is very effective, actually. In the past, people raved about his fastball — not velocity, but command. That won’t be the case anymore.

  4. Tom Gaffney

    I also think that part of IPK’s problem is that he has the rep of having pinpoint control with his heater, but, from what I’ve seen, he really doesn’t have that at all. He seems to only have average command. He doesn’t paint the black the way Phil does consistently.

    • Chris H.

      Agreed.

  5. Alex

    That fastball seems to be solid, but as we saw from his pretty bad K rate last year it’s just not fooling major league hitters. I don’t want him to go all Sonnanstine on us as throwing that little fastballs when your next pitches are a curve and slider is dangerous. But I do think that getting that fastball% down near 50 would help him out if he could mix in more of those secondary pitchers and start missing bats like he did in college and the minors.

    I’m still a big believer in IPK. He has shown that he can get Ks (although he need to make an adjustment to big league hitters), he has a track record of great control so I’m willing to dismiss his issues last year to a certain degree, and he doesn’t give up a ton of home runs. Really I think the long track record of dominance trumps 30 bad innings (some of which may have been pitched while injured).

    • Chris H.

      Yea, his fastball can still get up to 92 (maybe 93) mph on a very good day, so going “full Sonnanstine” isn’t needed. I think if he just cuts down on it a bit (near 50%) and locates it better (Sonnanstine has great control), then he’ll see some solid gains.

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