Is Kyle Kendrick…Good?

Kyle Kendrick has long been my whipping boy, a figure I lash out at and burn in effigy with tongue aflame at every misstep, my reluctance to praise him a difficult thing to overcome. And yet, here we are at the onset of September and I can no longer stifle the plaudits Kendrick is due.

We’ll start in July. Kendrick entered the month with a 5.35 ERA on the heels of allowing five ER in seven innings to the Pirates in a 5-4 loss, his record tumbling to 2-8 and his OPS allowed standing at .857. It wasn’t looking pretty, and it didn’t help that the team was only at the beginning of a 1-11 stretch that, at its conclusion, would push the Phils into last place by five games, 15 behind the first-place Nationals. A perfect storm, and Kendrick was my eye wall.

But things have changed since the calendar flipped to July, and Kendrick is a new man. At least, he’s putting on a good show.

IP ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 Opp. OPS
Through June 30 74.0 5.35 6.32 3.53 1.22 .857
Since July 1 51.2 2.09 6.66 2.10 0.88 .585

Samples are a bit disparate and a little too small to be anything but “intriguing,” but I think that’s just what they are: intriguing. The slight uptick in K rate is too small to be of note, but the walks have taken a 40-percent drop and the balls have been staying in the yard a fair bit more, as well.

The obvious question then becomes: why? What’s driving the longest sustained run of success in Kyle Kendrick’s six-year – yes, we’re up to six now – Major League career? The expected first turn would be to BABIP where, likely to no surprise, there’s an enormous difference when separating Kendrick’s season into the two time periods above.

Through June 30, Kendrick allowed a .332 BABIP. Since? .230. A full one hundred-point drop and spare change will make anyone look better. But is there more to it? After all, BABIP doesn’t account for home runs, and there’s been a drop there, too, as we see in the table above.

We’ll start by taking a closer look at Kendrick against left-handed batters, his arch-nemeses. For his career, lefties have tuned KK up to a .297/.367/.495 line, essentially a less powerful version of 2012 Robinson Cano. Since that magical July transition, though, catch this: lefties have hit just .183/.232/.301, with two homers in 99 plate appearances. That’s more like Jordan Zimmermann at the plate. Yep, the pitcher.

A big reason why could be a total overhaul in pitch selection.

Change% Cutter% 2-Seamer% Whiff% Strike% Chase%
Through June 30 20.3 32.4 35.4 17.3 59.4 29.3
Since July 1 36.1 11.9 51.1 24.9 65.1 37.4

In terms of total pitches, we’re comparing 667 total pitches (top) with 364 (bottom), so again, disparity is worth considering, but there are major changes here. Kendrick has eschewed the cutter is favor of change-ups and sinkers, which is natural given that the movement of those pitches from a right-handed pitcher will pull them away from a left-handed batter.

And, wouldn’t you know it, it’s working like a charm. Kendrick is placing more of those pitches in the zone and catching corners (45.5 percent with sinkers and change-ups as opposed to 36.7 percent pre-July), walking fewer batters and permitting just a .471 OPS with that combined arsenal. Kendrick has not been and will not ever be a flamethrower; he needs movement and secondary stuff to limit damage and compensate for the extra three-plus MPH his fastball does not have.

The GB/FB ratio has actually been flipped in this instance – Kendrick has allowed more fly balls than ground balls on sinkers/change-ups since the start of July, as opposed to the inverse before – but the HR/FB percentage has dipped from 6.5 percent to 3.6, and the well-hit average of those pitches has also fallen from .290 to .250, a more comfortable level.

In truth, just like with all pitchers who lean on deception and defense to help them get by, there is some smoke-and-mirroring going on here. I don’t believe Kendrick has unlocked a breakthrough that will make him a bargain at $4.5 million next season, but I do think this change in approach will yield better results moving forward, even if they won’t always be quite this good. He’s adapting (or trying to), if absolutely nothing else.