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Per Jim Salisbury, the Phillies have signed a two year extension with fringe starter/reliever and burgeoning fashion model Kyle Kendrick, covering 2012 and 2013, for $7.5 million. Absent this extension, Kendrick was headed for his first arbitration hearing in his second year of eligibility, having settled with the team in 2011 for $2.45 million. Matt Swartz, via his salary arbitration projection model, had estimated the value of Kendrick’s case to be $3.2 million, so the right-hander beat expectations slightly and tacked on another year of job security.
Traditionally, Ruben Amaro and the Phillies have been loathe to let arbitration cases go all the way to hearing, so in that sense this doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise — the Phillies have reached a pre-hearing settlement with all of their arbitration cases this season, and did the same with all of their cases in the previous off-season. On the other hand, for a team historically wary of the arbitration process, their fixation on a player whom the system is seemingly tailor-made to overpay is perplexing to say the least.
Kendrick has all the right attributes for extracting money from arbitration without being especially talented. He can start games in the rotation or in a spot role, and, via the generosity of Charlie Manuel, has plenty of relief opportunities, so he tends to rack up a lot of innings. In 2011, making only 15 starts, he still managed to log 114 and 2/3rds innings pitched. Joe Blanton, the putative fifth starter for 2012, has significant health and durability questions surrounding him, so Kendrick is likely to play that dual role once again. He’s also managed to accumulate wins even when his actual pitching left plenty to be desired — in 2008, with an ERA north of 5, he notched 11 victories, and added 11 more in 2010, with an ERA that was 14% below league average. These counting stats he’s managed to accrue give Kyle and his representation a service record to boast about in arbitration and compare favorably to other pitchers, even if the quality of that service hasn’t been very good — and it hasn’t.
Kendrick is the type of pitcher that requires a ton of variables to work in his favor to be successful. He has one of the more pitiful strikeout rates currently found in the MLB. In fact, of pitchers with at least 300 innings pitched in the last 4 seasons, he has the absolute lowest at 4.26, sharing the bottom of the barrel with such luminaries as Nick Blackburn, Aaron Cook, Aaron Laffey, and Jeff Suppan. Nominally, because his primary pitch is a sinker, Kendrick is a “ground ball pitcher.” And it’s true that, lacking the ability to miss bats, inducing grounders is his only real route to success. Kendrick’s career ground ball rate, however, is right around league average, at 45.6%, and the only single season in which he was substantially above average was in 2009, when he only faced 112 big league hitters.
For a pitcher that can’t strike hitters out, doesn’t have any particular ground ball ability, and who makes a living in a hitter’s park, the only savior is luck. Kendrick has had plenty of it, both good and bad. It was probably a foregone conclusion that the Phillies would tender him a contract after a 2011 season that was certainly the best of his career, but one has to wonder if anybody checked on how he put that season together. His strikeout rate last season was as woeful as ever, at 12.3% compared to the league average 18.6%. His ground ball rate was still decidedly mediocre — 45.3% compared to the league average 44.4%. Kendrick’s BABIP, however, bottomed out at .261. Both his ground balls and fly balls fell in for hits at significantly less than the league rate, amounting to batted ball fortune to an extent that Kendrick had not previously seen in his career. A lot of that luck came with runners in scoring position, a scenario in which his BABIP was just .256, helping to suppress his ERA. These figures, plus an inflated strand rate of 76.1%, helped him build a season that superficially looked great (and that the Phillies were happy to have), but did not bode any better for his future production than the previous four.
Pitchers who can be helpful when they get all of the right breaks are plentiful, and are a dicey proposition on anything more than a one year, low-risk deal. Pitchers like Joel Piñeiro and Dontrelle Willis are about equally as likely as Kendrick to have success next season. But in each opportunity that the Phillies have had to non-tender Kendrick and move on to the next slot machine arm, they have elected not to do so, instead entangling themselves further with a pitcher whose cost will continue to increase regardless of contribution, thanks to the arbitration process. Indeed, the Phillies already had Kendrick signed to an expensive but single-season deal for 2012, inked back in January, but decided to give him a boost in average annual value and contract duration.
As a “Super Two,” Kyle Kendrick is allotted four years of arbitration instead of only three, and his final will come in 2014, after this extension expires. It’s impossible to project Kendrick with absolute certainty, but whether or not he manages another luck-fueled successful season in the next two, his case in 2014 will likely be even more expensive (since arbitration disallows the team from offering less than a set amount relative to the player’s previous salary), and his profile will probably be the same mix of unimpressive ground ball rates and dismal strikeout abilities. How the Phillies deal with him in the offseason following this extension’s expiration will be especially telling. For a team so supposedly concerned with the looming luxury tax threshold, which will remain in place with the new collective bargaining agreement, the Phillies seem to have no reservations about handing out money to their most fungible, replaceable components.