The Texas coaching staff is constantly searching for ways to improve pitching performance. Whether it’s a new grip, different arm slot, or tweaked delivery, Longhorn coaches regularly watch film and are thinking about improving results. But what they did to spark a transformation in a young lefthander was unlike any of that.
Earlier this season, Nick Kennedy arrived at UFCU Disch-Falk Field for a normal, weekday practice. Texas would scrimmage each other for a few innings, like usual, and Kennedy was scheduled to be on the mound. What Kennedy would soon find out that February day was his assignment was different than anything he’s ever heard of before.
“Yeah, nobody has ever told me that,” said Kennedy with a big laugh.
The “that” is taking the mound in a scrimmage and throwing only changeups. Oh, and not only was Kennedy told to throw just changeups, the hitters he was scheduled to face would be told the same – the changeup is coming.
“Secondly, I hadn’t really even thrown it that much, and I was kind of like, ‘Dude, what’s this guy doing?’ Because I was having all kinds of trouble,” Kennedy continued about what he was thinking when pitching coach Phil Haig told him he’d be throwing only changeups in a scrimmage. “I couldn’t throw strikes with my fastball, or anything. I was like, ‘Alright, what are we doing? We’re reaching for something.’ So, we went into our team meeting before practice and he was like, ‘Alright, I’m telling everybody in the scrimmage Nick is only throwing changeups.’ Everybody knew. They were just sitting there. I was throwing all changeups. I was caught off guard, but it ended up making a huge difference.”
Since that scrimmage, Kennedy hasn’t given up an earned run in 11.2 innings, and has given up just four hits with 15 strikeouts. Most importantly for Kennedy and Texas, the sophomore issued just four walks during that span, which is almost right at 3.0 per nine innings. Plus, he's pitched out of multiple jams, and shown the ability to get deeper in midweek starts than ever before.
By throwing just changeups in a scrimmage, Kennedy’s results and the feeling of the arm-action and feel to throw a changeup correctly served as someone pulling a switch and igniting a lightbulb in his head. Because if a pitcher tries to throw a changeup too hard, it normally turns into a batting practice fastball getting hammered.
“The changeup, you can’t muscle that up. If you muscle that up, you’re not going to get anything out of it,” said Kennedy.
Overthrowing, or as Kennedy classified it, muscling up, is the lefty’s biggest enemy. Blessed with elite arm-action and an athletic, very strong body, the son of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers strength coach can reach back and hit 95 MPH on the radar gun when he wants to. However, that blessing, the ability to fire lightning bolts towards home plate out of his left hand, can be a curse too.
“It’s hard. It’s hard,” said Kennedy about avoiding overthrowing to light up the radar gun and try to use velocity to get outs. “You have to be smart to not look up because they have the MPH up there [on the scoreboard]. You have to be smart. It’s easy to do it in the bullpen, and then you get in the game and things get going and you have a tendency to overthrow and speed up. It’s something you have to work on.”
Kennedy has fought that demon on his left shoulder his entire career at Texas. Up until his outing against Lamar, he’d have ones like he did against Rice: .1 inning, three hits, one run, one strikeout. On one pitch, he’d snap off a plus slider that would buckle even a professional hitter. The next pitch might be an overthrown, flat fastball up in the zone that would be tattooed, and because he wanted to use velocity more than his natural gifts and stuff, the changeup was essentially non-existent.
“Really, I think the big thing is focusing on not overthrowing,” Kennedy said. “I get in trouble when I try to do too much, and try to overthrow. We’ve been working on the changeup a lot, and trying to stay smooth.”
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Rather than a pitcher losing confidence in his stuff, Kennedy was dealing with the opposite – his stuff could be so good and so hard that he thought throwing it as hard as he could was the way to get outs, and sometimes that worked.
“I think… I don’t know if it was the not trusting it sort of thing, but it was like an, ‘I know I can throw the ball pretty hard and that’s kind of what my game is’ kind of thing. I can do that any time and overpower people,” he said. “Eventually, I was like, ‘alright, I’ve tried everything. There’s no more I can try. You just have to back off, dude.’ It’s not back off like baby it in there. It’s just you don’t have to muscle it. You can throw hard and be fluid. Muscling up wasn’t doing it for me. That’s what it was."
The true moment for Kennedy when everything clicked came in the outing immediately following his changeup-only scrimmage.
Texas led Lamar 4-3 in the fifth inning, and Kennedy gave up a leadoff single. After a fly out, Haig called time, and walked out to the mound to deliver a message to Kennedy. The next batter then was out in front of a changeup, and rolled over it and into an inning-ending double play.
“It was,” responded Kennedy when asked if that was the moment everything clicked. “The thing about that whole thing was throwing the changeup that many times is what helped my fastball. That’s what kind of put it all in the zone. So, coach comes out and says, ‘throw a good changeup here, and he’ll roll into a double play.’ So, I made the pitch, and he rolled into a double play.”
After the game, David Pierce saw what he wanted to see from his sophomore lefthander.
“Gosh, he was awesome,” stated Pierce about Kennedy following the February 28th win over Lamar. “It was great for Nick because he works so hard and he’s so deserving of it. We’re trying to build his trust in himself and not overthrow. When he’s relaxed, he still throws 92-93 MPH. The greatest thing that happened for Nick tonight was he got a ground ball double play with the changeup, and that’s something him and coach (Phil) Haig have been working very hard [on]. We had an outing two Wednesdays ago and his entire outing was nothing but changeups, and that helps him relax. And for him to execute that in the game was huge.”
Since then, Kennedy has been able to feel when he’s getting away from what works, and falling back into that danger zone of “muscling up” to search for velocity instead of just pitching. Most notably, when Kennedy is muscling up, he uses far too much of his front side, which can rush his delivery towards the plate and force his arm to lag behind rather than sitting on a strong backside, and letting that do all the work with the proper, well-timed arm-action.
“Oh, for sure. The main thing is the wear-and-tear on my arm,” responded Kennedy when asked if he can feel on the mound when he’s overthrowing, and using his front side too much. “When you’re pulling with your front side like I was, and I muscle up, I know immediately because my arm hurts right after the pitch. And I’ll go through one or one and a half innings and my arm is hanging. So, when I’m just letting my backside go and letting everything go, it’s way easier on my arm. It’s a tell-tell sign right away.”
In his last outing against Texas A&M, Kennedy was still touching 92 MPH in his fifth and final inning regularly, and with ease. Over 80 pitches, his stuff never truly dipped, and it was the longest outing of his career, which followed the previous mark of 4.0 innings in a start versus Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
Against the Aggies, Kennedy saw his fastball sail up and away from him, and nearly hit a lefthanded batter a couple of times. Immediately, he was able to adjust because that location and spin told him what was going wrong. When that location and spin occurs, Kennedy thinks of his finish – is it clean and easy with a big backside leg kick, or does it include a recoil of his arm (the arm wanting to go back to where it started instead of finishing after the pitch) and an off-balanced landing on his front side?
“I can tell by my finish with my body. If I’m spinning off, or if I’m kind of doing the rebound, recoil thing, that’s a tell-tell. Or if I’m missing up and arm-side that means I’m just yanking and spinning that thing,” Kennedy said about what he looks and feels for during an outing to make adjustments. “Those are two things I’ll look for if I don’t necessarily feel it at the time.”
Another sign for Kennedy is the movement of his slider. When he doesn’t overthrow the pitch, it sits 81-85 MPH with sharp, late-breaking movement that crushes the souls of both lefthanders and righthanders; when right, it grades easily as a plus pitch. However, overthrowing the pitch leads to it spinning more flatly and staying elevated in the zone.
“100 percent,” said Kennedy when asked if the slider movement alerted him to whether or not he’s overthrowing on the mound. “When I muscle up, it’ll just sit up and spin and it’ll be up and arm-side. That’s when I know. When I’m not muscling up and getting to my release point, it’s down where I want it. If I put it in the dirt, I’ll feel good about that.”
Keep in mind that while Kennedy is clearly in the midst of a transformation on the mound, he still has a lot of work to be done. Frankly, he’s just scratching the surface as a pitcher following this breakthrough.
“The thing about the slider is… I feel comfortable putting it back foot most of the time. The challenge is putting it in the zone without hanging it,” he said about things he’s focusing on to improve. “I have trouble dropping it right in the zone when I want to. I can go backfoot all day. If I’m going for a strikeout pitch, I feel comfortable doing that. Putting the slider in the zone (early) still coming along. We kind of started the two-seam too. When they’re down and away, the action is good. That’s something that’s a work in progress, but I feel good about it.”
So far, Kennedy has loved his time working under Pierce and Haig. Haig has worked with Pierce as a pitching coach for six-straight seasons now while Pierce was known for his transformation of arms at Rice.
“They’re awesome. Attention to detail is really good. Coach Haig helps out a lot, I spend most of my time with him. They just… care. They spend a lot of time with you. He spends a lot of time with each guy. Coach Pierce will call you into his office and talk to individually, which is good. It’s just good to know your coach is paying attention to each of you individually.”
Texas is clearly paying attention, and an unorthodox idea appears to have unlocked the potential in what could be one of the Big 12’s best lefthanded arms. Where will Kennedy go from here? He doesn’t know, but he knows he’s a part of a pitching staff that could be special.
“I really don’t know at this point. Our starting pitching has been unbelievable at this point. I really don’t care one way or another,” he said about his eventual role this season.