Ian Kennedy announced on his Instagram page Thursday that he is coming back to pitch for the Rangers in 2023. He received congratulations from several of his former and once again teammates.
He is back in the same situation he was in 2021 when he initially signed with Texas. In 2021 he turned a minor league deal into a spot in the bullpen, and by the All-Star Break, he was closing games for Texas. That led him to be traded at the deadline in 2021 with Kyle Gibson and Hans Crouse, for Spencer Howard and 2 other prospects. Now he is back with Texas and hoping to earn a spot in the bullpen on a team that is ready to win now.
Ian Kennedy brings an experienced arm to a bullpen that is lacking in that department. The 38-year-old veteran will be entering his 17th season in the majors. He pitched for the Diamondbacks in 2022, was a disappointing season for Kennedy.
He began the season as their setup reliever, but by July he was regularly finishing games for Arizona. The numbers were down significantly from where he was in 2021. He struck out fewer batters, had a much higher earned run average (ERA) and walked more batters. There were not many pitching categories where he pitched better in 2022 than he did in 2021. It was a down season which explains why he was still on the free-agent market at the end of January.
Last season batters made much better barrel contact on his pitches, leading to higher exit velocities, and more hits were given up. His hard-hit percentage was up to 45.1%. and his expected batting average on batted balls jumped up from .226 in 2021 to .288 in 2022. One of the reasons it appears is that he lost nearly 1 mph off of his fastball compared to 2021. He was down from 94.1 on his 4-seamer in 2021 to 93.4 in 2022.
He is someone who relies on precise fastball locations to get hitters out. He has three other pitches, but since moving to the bullpen he has primarily relied on his 4-seam fastball over his other pitches. In 2022 he threw the 4-seamer 81.4% of the time. If that pitch is lacking it will lead to the hard contact he experienced in 2022. For him to be successful he will need to regain the velocity he lost. In the last few years of his career, the fastball velocity has been up and down. In 2022 it was 93.4, in 2021 was 94.1, in 2020 was 93.5, in 2019 was 94.4, and in 2018 was 91.9. It is certainly possible with the Rangers and their coaching staff that he can regain the lost velocity and once again become a valuable member of the Texas Rangers bullpen.
Heading into spring training, all of the jobs in the bullpen are up for grabs. Jose Leclerc and Jonathan Hernandez are the favorites to the late-inning arms. Joe Barlow, Taylor Hearn, and Brock Burke will be competing to be in the middle relief roles. Jake Odorizzi will be the swingman, pitching long relief and also making some spot starts.
That leaves 2 spots likely open for competition and possibly more if there are injuries in camp. Ian Kennedy would seem to fall in that category with Barlow, Hearns, and Burke. He could easily slide into a 6th or 7th-inning role on this team. He would be setting up Leclerc and Hernandez, and pitching late if those guys need a day off.
Overall though this is a no lose signing. It is the type of player that the Rangers' front office bring in and tends to hit on. The Rangers have been notorious for not spending significant dollars on bullpen arms. Normally they can get by hitting on one or two non-roster invites to camp every year and filling out their bullpen that way. Through the years there have been guys like Shawn Tolleson, Matt Bush, Ian Kennedy, Matt Moore, and I am sure many others. Kennedy will come to camp next month with something to prove and a job to claim.