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Is Kyle Kendrick Pumpkinizing?

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It seems almost obnoxious to criticize the Phillies’ starting rotation, which has vastly exceeded expectations in keeping the team’s playoff hopes afloat as the offense has gone limp over the last nine weeks. But as the standings ultimately don’t care whether you win (or lose) 2-1 or 11-10, and the team has such little margin for error as long as the bats aren’t producing, the team is beginning to face the question of what to do with second-year starter Kyle Kendrick.

Kendrick’s up-and-down year has followed the shocking success of his 2007 rookie campaign, when he turned what was supposed to be one emergency start into 10 wins, some Rookie of the Year votes, and a Game Two playoff start. Granting that it’s unreasonable to ask much more of Kendrick (or any #5 starter) than what he’s delivered in 2008—10 wins, a 5 ERA, and a quality start just less than half the time—the question is what to expect of him going forward, and whether the Phillies should consider alternatives as they head into the 2008 home stretch. 

In his last two starts, Kendrick has been thrashed: a combined 13 runs in 7 innings, on 15 hits and 8 walks. The first, against the much-improved Dodgers lineup, can be excused; the second, facing the anemic Padres on Saturday, really can’t be. Even before Kendrick melted down in the fourth inning, allowing five runs, he was tentative on the mound, pitching around .200-hitting Sean Kazmar to get to pitcher Chris Reineke in the second inning. Then in the fourth, Reineke’s single plated San Diego’s second run and Kendrick could not recover, allowing a single, walk, bases-clearing double and intentional walk before leaving the game.

Kendrick’s two fatal flaws in 2008 have been wildness and a painful inability to retire lefty hitters. Both bit him on Saturday, as he walked five and surrendered the last two big hits after Reineke’s—Jody Gerut’s single and the Brian Giles double—to left-handers. For the season, Kendrick has issued 49 walks in 134.2 IP, compared to 25 free passes in 121 innings last year; he’s had five starts in which he’s walked at least four hitters. In 2008, lefties are batting .326/.398/.527 against Kendrick, with 24 doubles, 10 home runs and 36 walks in 317 plate appearances; he has struck out just 22. By contrast, righties are hitting .269/.322/.391 against Kendrick, with 10 doubles, 7 homers, and 13 walks, and he has struck out 39.

It’s fair to ask whether Kendrick has been unusually lucky in his brief big-league career. He isn’t a strikeout pitcher, with just 4.1 per 9 IP (up from 3.7 in 2007), and lefties hit him about as hard last season (.321/.372/.549), but it didn’t show up on the scoreboard; his Fielding-Independent Pitching score (FIP) was 4.90, more than a run higher than his nominal ERA of 3.87. This year, his FIP is 5.21, much closer to his official ERA of 5.01. A big part of the difference is double plays: the Phils turned a stunning 18 behind him in 2007, but just 7 this year in more innings.

Related to the double plays is Kendrick’s fortune, or skill, in pitching out of trouble: last year, opponents batted an unfathomably low .245/.288/.344 in all situations with runners on base, compared to .305/.348/.524 with bases empty. This season, he’s still better under pressure: .281/.353/.421 with men on, compared to .312/.369/.490 with the sacks empty. But as the league has seen him a couple times now and hitters are more prone to laying off his sinker, the results are starting to converge. He needs to make another adjustment; can the Phils afford to wait and see if he can do that?

Since his nightmare outing in San Diego, Kendrick has pointed to mechanics issuesas the cause for his struggles. I can’t speak to that, but given his big workload over the last two seasons and struggles with location that have been intermittent since spring training, it’s worth asking whether fatigue or injury might be involved. In addition to his 134 innings this year at age 23, Kendrick threw 202 innings between AA and the big leagues last season at age 22/23, up from 176 the year before and 118 as a 20 year-old in 2005. That’s a lot of mileage on a young arm, and with all the runners he allows, most of those innings were at least somewhat stressful.

Going forward, I wonder if Kendrick’s splits and groundball tendencies might not better suit him for a situational relief role if he can’t come up with another pitch to retire left-handers. For now, the Phillies might have to think about alternatives—and they have three viable options at triple-A Lehigh Valley, where rehabbing vet Kris Benson, strikeout-inducing lefty J.A. Happ, and top prospect Carlos Carrasco all have shown some value. Given Kendrick’s good work since June 2007, this seems ungracious at least—but letting the young pitcher continue to flail in tough upcoming series against the Dodgers, Mets and Cubs won’t do anyone much good either.