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Could Kyle Kendrick Have Turned Into a Decent Pitcher Without Any of Us Noticing?

Does this look like a quality starter to you?
Does this look like a quality starter to you?

Yes this is a serious question. Bear with me while I elaborate.

So back on August 2, our friend KK made a start against the Rockies at Coors Field. This filled none of us with a sense of optimism. The Rockies, led by Jason Giambi, had humiliated Kendrick in Philadelphia on May 19 in one of the most unpleasant games of the season. And in general, Kendrick has been every thinking Phillies fan's favorite whipping boy for several years running. His successes have been mirages fueled by unsustainably low BABIPs. His failures have been excruciating to watch. His career strikeout rates have been terrible, and his ground ball rates have been unimpressive for someone who is reputed to be a ground ball pitcher.

But Kyle stunned all of us that night, throwing eight shutout innings. As WC wrote in his recap that night, "This wasn't even one of those lucky-good starts for Kendrick. The dude was flat-out dealing, striking out a career high seven Rockies batters and walking two, allowing four base hits and throwing 117 pitches." But at the same time, the longtime fans among us knew better than to get excited about it. Weird stuff happens in baseball, after all. Bud Smith once threw a no-hitter. Steve Jeltz once homered from both sides of the plate in the same game.

But then a funny thing happened: Kendrick continued to pitch well for the rest of the season. In August and September, he posted the following stats: 9 G, 5 GS, 35.1 IP, 31 H, 5 BB, 27 K. His rates? 1.27 BB/9, 6.88 K/9, 5.4 K/BB, 2.55 ERA, 3.74 xFIP. The league average xFIP in 2011 was around 3.8-3.9 or thereabouts, so Kendrick performed at an above-average level for two full months. WTF?

This was still no reason to get crazy, though, and nobody did. 35.1 IP is still a small sample. Even though this was a "real" hot streak (insofar as it wasn't fueled solely by batted ball luck or what have you), that didn't mean it was sustainable. Kyle Kendrick has pitched nearly 600 major league innings. He wasn't even seen as a particularly great prospect when he was in the minors. By now, he's a known quantity, right? There's no reason to think he's capable of change, is there?

Well... maybe there is? More after the jump.

It's not as if there's no precedent for a pitcher suddenly and unforeseeably improving in the middle of his career. To take an extreme example, Mike Scott was a pretty crappy pitcher for the Mets in the early '80s who averaged fewer than four strikeouts per nine innings pitched. He was so disposable that the Mets traded him to the Astros after the '82 season for equally crappy outfielder Danny Heep. He improved slightly in his first two seasons in Houston, but not by much.

And then in the following offseason, Scott worked out with famed pitching coach Roger Craig, who taught him how to throw a split-fingered fastball. Two years later, Scott struck out 10.0 K/9, posted a 2.22 ERA, and won the Cy Young Award. (He also allegedly learned how to scuff the ball around the same time, but that's neither here nor there.)

Scott's improvement was unforeseeable, but it wasn't inexplicable. When a pitcher learns a new pitch, all bets are off as far as predictions go. There's just no way to know how it's going to impact the pitcher's performance level in the future, because if he's throwing a different set of pitches, then the guy who posted his past stats basically no longer exists. Now obviously, Mike Scotts are not very common. That's because if there really was a pitch that could have made some pitcher much better, chances are that he would have discovered it sometime before reaching the majors. But you never know.

To be clear, Kyle Kendrick is not Mike Scott. He won't be winning a Cy Young Award in this dimension. (If he does, I'll walk to Pittsburgh.) But even so, the point is this: if KK's improvement at the end of the year coincided with a change in his pitch repertoire, then that might indicate that his performance wasn't a fluke. It might be a sign that the improvement was genuine.

As it turns out, Kendrick did not learn any all-new pitches this year, as far as I can tell. But he may have done the next best thing - revamping his approach. Check out this log of his 15 starts in 2011. (I'm not including his relief appearances because I think that would be mixing apples and oranges.)

Date Opponent IP H ER K/BB Sinkers (FT) Changeups Cutters (CT)
May 7 Braves 5.0 2 0 3/1 52 (75.4%) 12 (17.4%) 5 (7.2%)
May 19 Rockies 3.0 7 5 2/1 29 (39.7%) 24 (32.9%) 20 (27.4%)
Jun 4 @ Pirates 5.0 8 4 0/0 45 (59.2%) 18 (23.4%) 13 (17.1%)
Jun 9 Cubs 3.0 2 0 2/0 26 (54.5%) 6 (13.6%) 12 (27.3%)
Jun 15 Marlins 7.0 5 1 5/1 38 (43.2%) 13 (14.8%) 37 (42.0%)
Jul 1 @ Blue Jays 7.0 8 6 5/1 54 (58.1%) 17 (18.3%) 22 (17.2%)
Jul 6 @ Marlins 5.0 7 1 2/2 48 (59.3%) 2 (2.5%) 31 (38.3%)
Jul 17 @ Mets 7.0 6 1 0/3 71 (65.1%) 10 (9.2%) 28 (25.7%)
Jul 23 Padres 5.2 6 3 1/2 55 (60.0%) 9 (9.8%) 28 (30.4%)
Jul 28 Giants 6.1 6 3 4/2 42 (41.2%) 21 (20.6%) 39 (38.2%)
Aug 2 @ Rockies 8.0 4 0 7/2 39 (33.3%) 4 (3.4%) 74 (63.2%)
Aug 19 @ Nationals 6.0 5 2 4/1 45 (48.9%) 15 (16.3%) 32 (34.5%)
Aug 24 Mets 4.0 7 2 1/1 37 (45.7%) 12 (14.8%) 32 (39.5%)
Sep 15 Marlins 5.0 2 1 6/0 39 (50.0%) 6 (7.7%) 33 (42.3%)
Sep 20 Nationals 6.0 4 0 4/0 38 (48.1%) 6 (7.6%) 35 (44.3%)

You could aggregate the stats this way:

FT > 1/2 CT < 1/3 FT% CH% CT% IP ER BB (Per-9) K (Per-9)
First 9 Starts 7 times 7 times 57.7 15.3 27.0 47.2 21 11 (2.08) 20 (3.78)
Last 6 Starts 0 times 0 times 43.7 11.7 44.6 35.1 8 6 (1.53) 26 (6.62)

That sure looks like correlation to me, sports fans. It doesn't prove anything conclusively, given the small sample sizes. But it's reason for hope. Maybe the secret to KK's success is that he just needs to use his cutter more and his sinker less! Maybe if he just keeps on doing that, he'll be a decent (above-average?!?) major league starting pitcher. I know, pigs are flying!

That raises another question. For the sake of argument, let's say the numbers above really do mean something and aren't purely coincidental. Then, did Kyle become more effective just because he started throwing more cutters? Or did he start throwing more cutters because his cutter became more effective? I don't know how to answer that question, but I think this is suggestive:

Date Opponent Avg Speed Max Speed Avg H-Break Avg V-Break
May 7 Braves 87.74 88.4 -2.81 5.58
May 19 Rockies 86.32 88.4 -1.76 6.34
Jun 4 @ Pirates 86.71 88.3 +0.34 3.86
Jun 9 Cubs 87.58 88.9 -1.02 5.98
Jun 15 Marlins 87.28 89.0 -1.31 6.36
Jul 1 @ Blue Jays 85.31 90.3 -1.52 4.57
Jul 6 @ Marlins 86.21 89.5 +1.44 4.77
Jul 17 @ Mets 87.04 89.3 +0.15 4.93
Jul 23 Padres 85.40 89.0 -0.36 4.58
Jul 28 Giants 85.92 89.2 -0.31 4.49
Aug 2 @ Rockies 87.08 90.3 -0.15 4.72
Aug 19 @ Nationals 86.33 89.5 +1.35 3.52
Aug 24 Mets 86.06 88.5 -0.69 4.90
Sep 15 Marlins 85.50 87.5 -0.26 4.22
Sep 20 Nationals 86.65 89.0 +0.10 5.35

I don't know enough about cutters to say what a good H-Break or V-Break is, but just from eyeballing those numbers, it sure looks like Kendrick started throwing his cutter more frequently right around the same time it started breaking less. Below is a pictorial illustration. The chart on the left is from the July 1 game against the Blue Jays (17.2% CT). The chart on the right is from the final game of the year against the Nationals (44.3% CT).

(Courtesy Fangraphs - FC means the same thing as CT)

So, I'm going to surmise that cutters (or at least Kendrick's cutters) work better when they break less, and that this explains why he threw more of them toward the end of the year.

This isn't necessarily the best news. If Kendrick's cutter had been effective all along and if the only problem had been that he wasn't using it enough, then continuing his success with it would be entirely within his and Chooch's control. But that doesn't appear to have been the case. Instead, his cutter needed to get better to allow him to use it more often. In which case, who's to say that its effectiveness won't desert him in the future? Still, it does seem like it was pretty consistent over that two-month stretch - it's not like it was coming and going every other game. Maybe he figured it out.

I'm as surprised to see this as anyone. Just the other day, I indicated in a comment that I was rooting for the Phils to nontender Kendrick. But perhaps that was hasty. There are five starters ahead of him on the depth chart and a sixth starter is only worth so much money given its limited importance. But a good sixth starter is at least worth more than a bad sixth starter, and if Kendrick can actually be the former rather than the latter, then hey, maybe it wouldn't be such a terrible thing to kick a couple million his way. I wouldn't say I'm totally persuaded yet, but I'm in the process of reconsidering.

As a final note, if these numbers are for real, then I've got to give Kyle some credit. Based on hearing him talk in interviews (not to mention watching him pitch), I've never really thought of him as being a very bright guy. Maybe he's brighter than I gave him credit for. This isn't the first time he's adjusted his pitching approach in his career. In his first two seasons in the big leagues (PitchFx link), he threw about 70% four-seam fastballs and 20% crappy sliders. When he returned from the minors in 2010, he had ditched both pitches in favor of the two-seamer and the cutter (not to mention a crappy change-up). His recent shift in his relative usage of those pitches looks like a further step in an ongoing tweaking process. That may or may not suggest that he knows what he's doing out there, but at the very least, I think it clearly suggests that he's open-minded, conscientious, and committed to improving. If so, good for him - not every pitcher can say the same.