Saturday’s ninth inning between the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park began as a comfortable five-run lead in favor of the home team.
Fifteen minutes later, Ian Kennedy had some work to do.
Back-to-back-to-back home runs had knocked Mauricio Llovera out of the game and forced Joe Girardi to turn to his newly acquired closer. Kennedy had promptly allowed a single and a walk sandwiched around a foul pop-up to bring the go-ahead run to the plate with one out.
Representing that go-ahead run was first Pete Alonso and then J.D. Davis — the former of whom had 24 homers on the season, including seven in the 23 games since he captured his second consecutive Home Run Derby crown. His 25th big fly of the season — or Davis’ fifth — would have put the Mets ahead 6-5. On the list of all the possible undesirable outcomes for the Phillies, that, obviously, would have been at the very bottom.
So, the plan devised by Kennedy and J.T. Realmuto, perhaps with the help of pitching coach Caleb Cotham? Seven pitches. Seven elevated fastballs. Six swings and misses. Ballgame.
The interesting thing, however, is that Kennedy’s velocity doesn’t exactly blow hitters away on its own. He doesn’t quite possess the arm of José Alvarado, who had thrown 13 pitches of at least 99.0 mph one inning prior. Each of the first six fastballs that Kennedy fired to Alonso and Davis measured between 93.4 and 93.8 mph, before the righty reached back for 95.3 on the game’s final pitch.
So why did it work? The answer may lie in some advanced analytics.
What Kennedy lacks in sheer fastball velocity, he at least partially makes up for in spin. According to Baseball Savant, Kennedy’s four-seam fastballs this year have averaged 2,441 revolutions per minute. (For the skeptics out there, Kennedy’s fastball spin rate hasn’t significantly dropped off since MLB began its foreign substance crackdown in June.) That number ranks 78th out of 698 pitchers in Major League Baseball, minimum 50 pitches thrown. It’s 12 spots (and 26 RMP) behind Gerrit Cole, whose 2021 fastball has averaged 97.6 mph, and one spot ahead of Max Scherzer, who averages 94.3 mph. For more context: NL Cy Young candidate Zack Wheeler ranks 141st.
Kennedy is also toward the top of the leaderboard in active spin, which essentially measures how much of a pitch’s spin contributes to its movement. Kennedy’s active spin of 97.5% ranks No. 88 out of 627 pitchers, also minimum 50 pitches thrown. For Kennedy, a pitcher who relies on vertical rather than lateral fastball movement, that high Active Spin creates additional rise, making it even harder to hit despite its relatively low velocity.Embed from Getty Images
Those fastballs, which clocked around 93 mph, got higher and on Alonso and Davis’ hands much more than would the average 93-mph heater that starts in the same location. Throughout Alonso’s at bat, the Fox Sports broadcast often noted that the Mets’ slugger was consistently late. Perhaps that high spin rate and active spin percentage explain why.
Based on manager Luis Rojas’ comments in his postgame press conference, the Mets seem to have done their homework, and Rojas sees the same in the Phillies righty.
“Well-placed up in the zone,” Rojas said of the fastballs to Alonso and Davis. “Ian Kennedy’s a guy that has good carry on his fastball. He’s known for that. He’s throwing it eight out of 10 times and the batters know it’s coming, but still, the carry and the movement vertically that he has gives him the ability to get some swings and misses.”
Perhaps that’s why the Phillies traded for Kennedy (along with starter Kyle Gibson) as their biggest bullpen upgrade before the July 30 trade deadline and have used Kennedy as their closer despite his lack of elite velocity that typically accompanies back-end relievers in today’s game. He is 18-for-19 in save opportunities this year, after all.
Kennedy has already given up three homers in his brief Phillies tenure, and he hasn’t yet had a full hiccup- and stress-free inning. That said, he’s nailed games down each time the Phillies have asked him to, however dicey it may get. As long as he does that, the team will take it — even if he has to rely on impressive pitch sequencing, location and strategic movement rather than nearly unhittable velocity (à la Alvarado, when he’s throwing strikes). Kennedy certainly used all of those things against Alonso and Davis — and nail the game down, he did.
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