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Kendrick’s Continued Improvement

Kyle Kendrick has been at times both brilliant and frustrating this season. He shut out the St. Louis Cardinals towards the end of May, and hasn’t allowed a run in 15 straight innings, blanking the Marlins over seven innings and the Brewers over eight in his most recent start. Between the end of June and beginning of August, he threw 22 straight scoreless innings. However, he also allowed six runs over 3.1 innings in an August 8 start against Atlanta, and has allowed 5+ runs in six of his 17 starts this season.

Kendrick has very much been boom or bust, putting together efficient stretches where he pitches better than ever before that are blanketed by dud-performances that resemble what we’ve come to expect from him. But what makes Kendrick’s season so interesting is that, ERA aside, he really has picked up where he left off at the end of the 2011 season. And he has helped cement what we learned upon reviewing his numbers after that late-May shutout of the Cardinals: he is a different pitcher now, and it’s becoming harder to argue with his performance and criticize the two-year deal he signed this past offseason.

Kendrick has been boom more than bust this year.

After shutting out the Cardinals on May 26, I wrote at Brotherly Glove that Kendrick had thrown 86% of his innings as a starter, and had a 15% strikeout rate, 4% walk rate, 50% groundball rate and 3.25 ERA. Those starter numbers included a poor outing against the Diamondbacks, where he was thrust back into the rotation at the last minute, and was predictably rusty.

Remove that start against Arizona, and from April 29-May 26, Kendrick made five starts against the Cubs, Nationals and Cardinals with the following numbers: 17% strikeout rate, 4% walk rate, 54% groundball rate, 1.64 ERA. In fact, from July 17, 2011, when Kendrick rejoined the rotation, through the May 26, 2012 shutout, he had thrown 83.1 innings over 14 starts (6 IP/GS), with a 14% strikeout rate, 5% walk rate, 45% groundball rate and 2.70 ERA. Kendrick was showing that his improved performance at the end of the 2011 season wasn’t fluky or the result of small sample size trickery.

So how do these numbers look now, nearly three months later?

Luckily, Fangraphs has a nifty feature on its individual player gamelogs page, where users can select start- and endpoints over multiple years. From July 17, 2011 through August 19, 2012, Kendrick has made 25 starts and thrown 145.2 innings, for an average just shy of six innings per start. He has a 16% strikeout rate, 6.5% walk rate, 44% groundball rate and 3.58 ERA in that span. His higher home run rate — 1.2 per nine innings — puts his FIP at 4.39, but Kendrick has done a lot right over the last year.

In years past, he could hold an offense scoreless or limit their output to a run or two, but the results were mostly luck-based. He didn’t miss bats and relied on strong defense to bail him out of situations. Now, Kendrick has become far more adept at taking matters into his own hands, and his much improved strikeout rate bears that out. Entering the season, his highest strikeout rate was 13.4% in 2009; his current rate is 17%, way above his previous high.

One of the major reasons for his improvement is the development, and proper usage of, the changeup. Another contributing factor is his continued usage of the cutter. In 2009, he threw his sinker 67 percent of the time. That percentage has dropped off in each of the last three years, as he began developing the cutter and implementing the changeup. This season, Kendrick has thrown the sinker 46% of the time, incorporating the cutter 27% of the time and the changeup on 22% of his offerings. Over the last few seasons, he threw the changeup around 13-15% of the time.

The change in approach has worked, and while his current 4.20 ERA isn’t all that shiny, the underlying inputs are both more important and more telling of what to expect moving forward. If Kendrick can find a way to limit the longball, he will become even more valuable. For now, even if he continues to pitch at this current rate, he will easily prove worthy of that two-year deal. Many fans and analysts were skeptical that he could build on his August/September performance last season, but he has done just that this season. Moving in and out of the rotation has obfuscated the situation, but Kendrick has done well this year.

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