Ian Kennedy spent last offseason training to return from injury as a starter, having held that role throughout his MLB career. He entered the spring in a good physical place despite recent hamstring and oblique strains.
But the 34-year-old received news he didn’t expect — or want to hear — when he arrived at Royals camp. General manager Dayton Moore, manager Ned Yost and pitching coach Cal Eldred informed him he would serve as a relief pitcher moving forward.
From an organizational perspective, it made sense for Kansas City to try something else. Kennedy had pitched to a 5.06 ERA the previous two years, and his durability waned in that time. The rebuilding Royals were eager to provide more starts to younger pitchers.
Still, Kennedy felt an initial wave of hurt. He had served one function his whole career, and he had been good at it for long stretches. His team was telling him to give up his identity.
“I was going back and forth,” Kennedy told Sporting News. “It was a mental battle more than anything.”
That Eldred once made the same transition from starter to reliever helped Kennedy eventually agree to the change. He realized joining Kansas City’s bullpen was his only sure path to continued big league security. The Royals also had a strong track record of molding lockdown closers from lost members of their rotation.
As long as the club helped him learn his new responsibilities, giving him specific pointers to smooth the process, Kennedy would follow what his higher-ups requested.
“When you know you’re not really in control of it,” Kennedy said, “you’ve got to surrender and just kind of be like, ‘OK, this is what I’m going to do. If this is where I’m going to pitch, then OK. I’m going to do the best I can.’”
That acceptance has worked out pretty well for him.
Kennedy won the closer’s job for good in June by performing well in seventh- and eighth-inning appearances. He has recorded 30 saves so far this year. He boasts a 3.28 ERA this season, his best mark since 2011, and is striking out a career-high 10.4 batters per nine innings.
The right-hander’s mindset toward late-inning outings is different now. He said he feeds off an energy level he never used to reach as a starter, which minimizes the pressure of ninth innings by keeping him too amped to consider what could go wrong.
An important part of Kennedy’s success has been condensing his large collection of pitches into a potent, streamlined power surge. He upped his fastball usage, and because short appearances let him give max effort each pitch, the heater has crept from the low-90s to mid-90s on the radar gun. He does not have to get tricky or shuffle through an array of offerings anymore. He ditched his changeup to simplify his approach.
“You’re not trying to get Matt Chapman out three times in a game,” Kennedy said. “You’re just trying to get him out once. Just do that.”
Kennedy watched from afar when the Royals turned middling starter Wade Davis into the league’s best closer earlier this decade. One of his best friends, Luke Hochevar, also improved his stock by making the transition to the bullpen.
Now a part of the relief pitcher experience, he said he’s hooked on the position.
As he tried to describe why he enjoys it so much, and why he hopes to spend the rest of his career out of the bullpen, his mind wandered to his ninth-inning perspective from the mound. He mentioned the urgency apparent from opponents in the batter’s box, and the way crowds seem to expand or deflate with each pitch. He noted how fans stand up whenever he’s a strike away from completing a save.
“It’s a totally different adrenaline rush,” Kennedy said. “I really, really like it.”