Kyle Kendrick’s Flashes of Greatness

Kyle Kendrick is currently sitting on his second consecutive scoreless innings streak of at least 15 innings, and no, you’re not dreaming — this is real life. Orel Hershiser need not worry until KK reaches the 35-inning mark or so, but it is still an impressive feat for the soon-to-be 28-year-old right-hander. Between June 28 and August 3, Kendrick tossed 22 consecutive scoreless frames, and after last night’s eight-inning gem in Milwaukee, Kendrick is back up to 15 consecutive scoreless innings.

Why has Kendrick, with the career 12 percent strikeout rate and 4.84 xFIP, shown flashes of brilliance so far this year? The most obvious answer is that Kendrick vastly improved his ability to miss bats. Entering the season, Kendrick’s K-rate was just over 11 percent and peaked at 13.4 percent in 2009, a 26.1-inning season. This year, Kendrick has struck out 17 percent of the batters he’s faced. Since Kendrick will likely finish somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 total batters faced, that comes out to about 35 extra outs, relative to his career average, that don’t rely on luck or defenders converting a batted ball into an out.

The second notable change in Kendrick is an increased reliance on the change-up. He had thrown it roughly 15 percent of the time entering the season, but brought it up above 22 percent in 2012. Although it is not anywhere near the level of Cole Hamels‘ change-up, it has been good enough as hitters have posted a .313 wOBA against his change and swung and missed at it almost as much as all of his other pitches combined:

  • Change-up: 26
  • Cutter: 15
  • Sinker: 13

The role of the change-up for most pitchers is to mess up the hitter’s strategy, as opposed to an out pitch as Hamels uses it. If hitters go up to the plate licking their chops at Kendrick’s cutter, then he has to do something to make that strategy less rewarding, which he accomplishes by reducing his cutter usage and increasing his change-up usage. As a result, hitters are performing 40 points worse in wOBA against the cutter than they did last year in a comparable amount of innings. Despite that, they are performing better against the change-up, but it can be explained by last year’s .143 BABIP regressing (.316 now).

This isn’t to say that Kendrick is better than a fifth-starter type — his xFIP is 4.62 (career 4.64) and his SIERA is 4.40 (career 4.78). However, he has continued to evolve despite being pushed in and out of his roles between the starting rotation, the bullpen, and even Triple-A Lehigh Valley. As the Phillies have him under contract next year for $4.5 million, this can only be considered good news. With three very talented veteran starting pitchers at his disposal (Hamels, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee), Kendrick can pick their brains (as he has done in the past) and continue to make these incremental improvements.