Kennedy Makes His Mark

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·12 min read
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Ian Kennedy went wild in the last week, locking down four saves and six strikeouts in four appearances. No other reliever topped two saves. He has proven a much-needed boon for a Rangers bullpen that can never quite develop lockdown closers or keep them on the field. His performance is a step above his fantastic 2019 campaign because his whiff rate has nearly doubled. He’s also throwing more fastballs than ever before, signaling this as a fluky sort of success. Since they’re a rebuilding club, Kennedy figures to be one of the best relievers on the trade market this summer. The Rangers might even sell him early, before he slumps or hits the injured list like all their other notable relievers. Fantasy speculators might wish to nab Joely Rodriguez good and early.

Now, shall we go to the tiers?

Closer Tiers

Tier 1: The Elite (3)

Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees
Liam Hendriks, Chicago White Sox

Hader allowed his first run of the season last Thursday, but it didn’t affect the outcome of the game. Chapman is now six innings into a reliever no-hitter. Overall, he’s allowed just two hits and three walks in 10 innings with 24 strikeouts. He’s made only one appearance with fewer than two strikeouts. Hendriks also pitched smoothly in two appearances.

Tier 2: Strikeout Kings (8)

Edwin Diaz, New York Mets
Craig Kimbrel, Chicago Cubs
Ryan Pressly, Houston Astros
Brad Hand, Washington Nationals
Matt Barnes, Boston Red Sox
Emmanuel Clase, Cleveland Indians
Raisel Iglesias, Los Angeles Angels
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers

Diaz’s most recent appearance was a three-run meltdown against the Phillies. Back discomfort was blamed. His strikeout rate is well below his norm, although he was trending in the right direction before the Sunday blowup. Trevor May and Jeurys Familia are pitching well and could supplant Diaz before long. We’ll bump him down a tier until his job security restabilizes. Last season, he recorded just six saves because of the bad impression he made in 2019.

Kimbrel has pitched three of the last four days and four of the last six. The Cubs bullpen, in general, is overworked. If he does get a day of rest, Ryan Tepera might be the call. Alec Mills is rested, but it’s because he’s a bad reliever.

I’m generally a skeptical sort when it comes to relievers suddenly developing superior command. So, I’ve been slow to credit Barnes for his dazzling start. To date, his 2.25 ERA, 14.63 K/9, and 0.56 WHIP belong in the first tier. His first pitch strike and swinging strike rates are at a career-high. This is a positive indicator of improvement, but it’s no guarantee. Perhaps opponents simply have a bad approach and could adjust. We’ll keep an eye on it.

Jansen’s dances with velocity remain ongoing. His most recent appearances were a mixed bag – better velocity and more walks. He’s now at 7.30 BB/9. The extra zip should be a good thing, but we have to wonder if he broke something in that pitch lab over the winter.

The Angels might as well learn that Iglesias hates pitching in non-save situations. He’s been quite vocal in recent years – don’t use him with a big lead, a tie, or a deficit. He coughed up a pair while down two runs on Monday.

Tier 3: Core Performers (6)

Mark Melancon, San Diego Padres
Diego Castillo, Tampa Bay Rays
Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies
Will Smith, Atlanta Braves
Richard Rodriguez, Pittsburgh Pirates
Taylor Rogers, Minnesota Twins

The top four in this tier pitched well with a couple small exceptions. Castillo failed to protect a tied game on Friday. He was working a third day in a row – I generally look the other way and when relievers are overused. Neris was also overworked when he coughed up a game-losing solo home run on Saturday. Since April 21, he’s appeared in eight games over a span of just 13 days.

Rodriguez completed a reliever perfect game this week and has allowed just one hit and one walk in 12.1 innings. So why is he still ranked just outside the top 15 closers? Much of his success is built on a .036 BABIP. His 9.5 percent swinging strike rate is a career worst (excluding a very brief 2017 debut) as is his 7.30 K/9. Regression is coming – likely in both positive and negative ways. These contradictory effects can confuse analysis. For now, I have him down for a 3.00 ERA, 9.00 K/9, a 1.10 WHIP, and a mid-season trade to a playoff contender.

Rogers has allowed two runs in two consecutive appearances. Tyler Duffey has also worked consecutive days so look for Hansel Robles or Caleb Thielbar to sub a save tonight. If Rogers fumbles the job entirely, Duffey should be next in line.

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Tier 4: Upside (6)

Ian Kennedy, Texas Rangers
Alex Reyes, Giovanny Gallegos, St. Louis Cardinals
Lou Trivino, Jake Diekman, Oakland Athletics
Yimi Garcia, Dylan Floro, Miami Marlins
Cesar Valdez, Baltimore Orioles
Kendall Graveman, Rafael Montero, Seattle Mariners

With Jordan Hicks now sidelined at least a month due to elbow inflammation, Reyes has less competition for the closer role. If you’re a patient sort and like to look ahead, the job should eventually find its way to Gallegos. That said, the Cardinals have assiduously avoided Gallegos in the past. Reyes has yet to allow a run, but it’s not because he’s pitching well. He’s gotten away with baserunners galore because he’s only allowed six hits in 14.1 innings. His batted ball profile doesn’t believe he’ll continue to avoid hits at anything like this rate. ERA estimators believe he should have a mid-5.00s ERA.

Trivino and Diekman continue to share eighth and ninth inning duties for the Athletics. Consider it a 65/35 split in favor of Trivino for now. I’ve bumped Valdez and the Mariners platoon up to account for their recent success. Graveman is channeling Rodriguez and Reyes with his .107 BABIP. When he reverts to normal, he’ll be somewhere between those two pitchers. I’m expecting about a 3.75 ERA, 8.50 K/9, and a 1.20 WHIP. That plays if he still has a share of saves. And it’s slightly better than I anticipate from Montero.

Tier 5: Assorted Messes (7)

Jake McGee, San Francisco Giants
Rafael Dolis, Jordan Romano, Toronto Blue Jays
Sean Doolittle, Lucas Sims, Tejay Antone, Amir Garrett, Cincinnati Reds
Josh Staumont, Greg Holland, Scott Barlow, Kansas City Royals
Stefan Crichton, Joakim Soria, Arizona Diamondbacks
Gregory Soto, Bryan Garcia, Detroit Tigers
Daniel Bard, Mychal Givens, Robert Stephenson, Colorado Rockies

Setting any sort of order for this tier probably isn’t worth the effort. After a brilliant start to the season, McGee has allowed a 12.71 ERA since mid-April. He’s still inducing strikeouts and avoiding walks. A 4.76 HR/9 and .444 BABIP account for his woes. As basically a one-pitch pitcher, such figures could represent a fluke or a sign he’s just too predictable in certain conditions.

Dolis remains the closer du jour in Toronto. I expect this job to change hands many times with Romano, David Phelps, and Tyler Chatwood on the shortlist for saves. In Cincy, Doolittle and Garrett have now gone the longest without a workplace accident. Sims and Antone both turned in recent frustrating outings.

Staumont is yet another pitcher with good results and poor peripherals. He was a far superior pitcher last season. This year, he’s lost a tick on the gun and around a third of his whiffs. Holland is on a hot streak and could regain the role at any moment. He’s tamped down on the walks that ruined a couple early outings. Due to workloads, Barlow is in line to close tonight.

Soria is back in Arizona, although he’s yet to appear. I also don’t have any reports on his stuff during rehab. I suspect he’ll be back in the ninth inning within two weeks. Crichton is, after all, baseball’s most boring reliever.

Injured

Trevor Rosenthal, Oakland Athletics (thoracic outlet syndrome)
Julian Merryweather, Toronto Blue Jays (oblique)
Chris Martin, Atlanta Braves (shoulder inflammation)

Martin is expected to return by the weekend. No updates on Rosenthal or Merryweather. They’re both in the resting phases of their recovery.

Deposed

Anthony Bass, Miami Marlins
Alex Colome, Minnesota Twins
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Rafael Montero, Seattle Mariners

Steals Department

Weekly Leaderboard

Byron Buxton, 3 SB (4 total)
Nico Hoerner, 3 SB (3)
Robbie Grossman, 3 SB (6)
Shohei Ohtani, 3 SB (6)

It wasn’t a big week for baserunners as only 17 others swiped more than one base. Among the double-steal crowd was last week’s Speed Spotlight Sam Haggerty. For the season, Whit Merrifield leads the way with 10 steals. Ramon Laureano is locked at eight bags while three others check in at seven thefts.

Buxton has arrived as a potentially elite power hitter, and he still has some of the fastest wheels in the league too. His instincts as a baserunner are conservative – he rarely runs if it isn’t an easy steal. That’s good for odd formats that heavily penalize caught stealings. Given his health woes, I’ll take fewer steals if it means he’ll continue plodding towards 40 home runs.

Hoerner was rushed to the Majors before he was ready, and it was obviously apparent in 2019 and 2020. He appears more confident and disciplined in the early going. He still lacks anything resembling power, but he does have traits of a .290 hitter with a decent OBP. Toss in his 92nd percentile sprint speed and we might be looking at a 25-steal threat with a chance to eventually climb into a leadoff role. Expect fewer than 10 home runs.

Grossman is a case study on the importance of just hanging around the league awhile. A classic Athletics-style player for ages – all OBP with nothing else standing out – he’s developed into a solidly above average player across the board. He picks his spots for steals, makes consistent contact, and can even put a charge in the ball from time to time. He’s a threat go 15/15 with a .240 batting average and .350 OBP.

We all know Ohtani is special. His sprint speed rates 15th in the league, on par with Ronald Acuna and Fernando Tatis Jr. When he’s healthy, he clearly enjoys making his presence felt in all facets of the game. An aggressive power hitter, there will be long stretches when his stolen base opportunities are few and far between.

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Speed Spotlight

Nick Senzel has participated in parts of three seasons now. For his career, he has a .245/.308/.403 batting line in 577 plate appearance. Per an advanced stat, wRC+, he’s been 16 percent below league average as a hitter. Soon to be 26, the former top prospect and first round draft pick is in desperate need to catch fire.

There’s reason to be optimistic. First, let’s address the running since this is a spotlight on speed. He doesn’t look especially wheelsy, yet looks can be deceiving. He has 95th percentile sprint speed and also rates among the 15 fastest in the league in 90-foot sprints. These are the most difficult-to-develop raw traits needed to pile up steals. Decision-making is important too. This season, he’s just 2-for-6 on the basepaths – a sign he’s making poor choices. For his career, he’s a slightly better 18-for-28.

The other thing Senzel needs to improve upon to become a prime base thief is his hitting. By scouting grades, he makes an above average quantity of contact. The quality of that contact is average. He has above average raw power in batting practice, although that’s yet to appear in games. His plate discipline is average or slightly better. Combining all of these traits should produce a quality hitter, perhaps one who bats .265/.340/.460 with a little help from Great American Ballpark. More opportunities could improve his baserunning.

Let’s finish with some quick math. Presently, he’s attempting about 32 steals per 650 plate appearances. If he were successful three-quarters of the time (roughly league average), he’d nab 24 bags. That’s built on reaching base around 200 times per 650 PA. Bump up his production and we could expect 230 to 250 times on base and another handful of steal attempts.

The moral of the story is simple. Senzel has the raw components to be much better than he is along with a healthy 20 to 30 stolen bases. In leagues with long time horizons, now is a great time to check in about buying low. As long as you pay for what he is now, you’re making a risky but potentially valuable investment.