Ian Kennedy: Dependable Reliever, Incredible Teammate for the Diamondbacks
Relief pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks is finally stabilizing, a welcome sight for the team. It has been a concern for years now. Not one reliever from the 2019 squad remains. No reliever from Opening Day 2020 or 2021 is left, either, at least as a mainstay. The returnees for 2022 either began 2021 as starters (Caleb Smith, Luke Weaver), were mid-season pickups (Sean Poppen, Noe Ramirez, J.B. Wendelken), or started 2021 in the minors (Joe Mantiply). Of all the team’s needs, veteran back-end relief was the biggest. To fill the void, the Diamondbacks signed Mark Melancon to close and former Diamondbacks starter Ian Kennedy for set-up. Little did anyone know at the time how important the Ian Kennedy signing truly was.
Ian Kennedy brings more than dependable, effective back-end relief. He is a beloved figure in the clubhouse. Younger pitchers look up to him, not only for advice, but for leadership by example. The smiling, happy-go-lucky 37-year-old never seems to be bothered by anything on or off the field. Instead, he radiates positivity and fun. Kennedy not only brings smiles to the clubhouse before and after the game, but during the game, he keeps the entire bullpen in stitches.
During spring training, Kennedy sat down for a lengthy interview. In the six weeks since then, some teammates have given insights into what makes the 16-year veteran tick. They’ve shared why he’s such a great teammate as well as what makes him an effective reliever. Two even added what they think he should do after he wraps up his pitching career. It all made for quite a window into the life of the one and only Ian Kennedy.
Ian Kennedy: From Starter to Reliever
Ian Kennedy, as mentioned in the intro, is in his 16th season of Major League Baseball. For his first 12, he was a starter. But heading into his fourth of an eventual five seasons with the Kansas City Royals, the team switched him to a relief role. It paid off nicely, as he converted 30 out of 34 save opportunities in 2019. Furthermore, in Goose Eggs, he went 19-5-5 that season, an above-average GE/BE ratio of 3.8.
His success continued in 2021 with the Texas Rangers, where he closed for the last-place club. While in Arlington, he converted 16 out of 17 save opportunities (94%). In Goose Eggs, he went 15-0-2, an infinite (and rare) GE/BE ratio. At the trade deadline, the Rangers sent him to the Philadelphia Phillies, where he became a setup man. His performance slipped a bit but was still very good — 10-for-13 in save opportunities and a GE/BE ratio of 3.7 (11-3-2).
A Familiar Face Comes Calling
Seeing his recent success — and given that they needed veteran back-end relief — the Arizona Diamondbacks signed Kennedy to a one-year, $4.75 million contract in March. Kennedy came aboard to be the setup man for Melancon. Despite three or four (depending on how one looks at it) shaky outings, Kennedy has performed rather well so far. He has a 70.6% Scoreless Outing Percentage (ScOtg%), putting up a zero in 12 of his 17 appearances. This puts his percentage slightly above the NL average. However, if we consider that in one of the other five outings the only run he allowed was unearned, we could say that it’s 13-of-17, or 76.5%. Kennedy also has a 3.0 GE/BE ratio (9-3-1).
When Melancon went on the IL for COVID protocols, Kennedy filled in as the closer. He pitched the ninth four times, allowing no runs, two hits, and two walks. In addition, he converted all three save opportunities.
Ian Kennedy Returns to Arizona
Coming to Arizona in 2022 was a homecoming of sorts for Kennedy. Although Kennedy came up with the New York Yankees, it was Arizona where he became a regular starter. It was Arizona where, in 2011, Kennedy had his best season as a starter. In addition, it was Arizona where Kennedy pitched in the postseason for the first — and still to this day, only — time.
Kennedy almost came to Arizona in 2021 but signed instead with the Rangers. Kennedy said, “Texas seemed like the right fit. (Manager) Chris Woodward, I heard so many good things about. So I went there. It was a great year, just a fun year learning. The coaching staff and the Rangers I really, really enjoyed. And then going to Philly, being able to pitch in a playoff push was a lot of fun. We just fell short, but it was like every game mattered. It was a ton of fun. I haven’t done that since I was here.”
The Diamondbacks came calling again once the 2021-22 Lockout ended. Kennedy enjoyed both the familiarity he has with Arizona and the fact that they wanted him so badly. “Coming back here, knowing the same training staff, is important to me. To stay around a long time, you have to be in the training room. It’s all maintenance stuff. So that was important to me, coming back. They showed interest almost the whole offseason when they could, when we weren’t locked out. When the lockout ended, they were one of the first teams to call. Then they kept calling, kept calling, and after a while, you’re thinking, ‘They know me and must have watched me for a while. If they trust me and my abilities that much, I’ll give them a chance.’”
Another Type of Reunion
Kennedy knew he was part of a new-look relief corps. But that didn’t matter to Kennedy due to one signing the Diamondbacks made before the Lockout — Melancon. “I knew a ton of guys were new,” Kennedy said. “(But) they signed Mark, and I know him. I’m glad to set up for someone like Mark. It’s a ton of fun with him in the bullpen. I know him really well, knew him from the past. So it was just another opportunity to come here again, and I was pretty excited about it.”
He and Melancon were both drafted by the New York Yankees in the 2006 draft, and they were roommates later that summer while with the Class-A (Short Season) Staten Island Yankees. They knew of each other in their college days. After all, they both played in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12), Melancon with the Arizona Wildcats and Kennedy with the USC Trojans. But their paths crossed much earlier, going back to when they played against each other in travel ball during their youth. In addition, they had several mutual friends.
Knowing Melancon so long and so well will not affect play on the field all that much. However, “definitely helps in the clubhouse,” Kennedy acknowledges. “In the clubhouse, it helps loosen things up, since we don’t have to try to get to know each other. We know each other pretty well, so it’s just fun.”
“It’s a Team Thing”
Once the starter comes out of a game, pitching becomes a giant chain. Kennedy views it “as a team thing. If I don’t do my job, (the closer) is not able to do his. I knew, as a closer, I was only as good as the guy in front of me that was able to do his job.”
The link Kennedy plays in that giant chain is setup man, typically pitching in the eighth inning. Although both are high-pressure, pitching in a setup role is different than closing. “With the ninth inning,” he explained, “you have no margin of error. There may be a little more sense of urgency on the offensive side, pitching out of the ninth, because they know that’s their last at-bat.”
Kennedy went into further detail. “The ninth inning is a different animal. I think that that’s why not everybody can do it. Mark’s done it forever. I was able to do it. There are some guys who think too much. Hitters change a little bit. The seventh/eighth/ninth hitters become better because they want to turn the lineup over so the top lineup can get in there. I noticed that right away. You need to attack in every circumstance, but as a reliever, you need to attack and throw strikes. You don’t throw strikes out of the bullpen, that’s usually how you get hurt. Mark has a ton of control. He has so many different pitches. I think that’s why he’s done so well. He’s the same guy from when he got drafted to now, other than having a better cutter.”
Routines and Knowing What to Expect
Kennedy quickly learned the “giant chain” concept, as well as the ninth inning being different, in 2019. In that season, the Kansas City Royals switched him from starter to set-up to closer and back to set-up. “First day I pitched out of the eighth inning. The next day I closed. The next day I closed again. And that happened fast, so I was learning (quickly). After that, we had Brad Boxberger, so we had somebody else with closing experience. So they put him back there. I threw the eighth, and Jake Diekman threw the seventh.”
Kennedy strongly believes in the importance of relievers knowing their roles. “When people talk about the ninth inning, front offices are trying to get away from trying to pitch to roles and whatnot. But there’s a human element to it that can’t compute in any formula. First of all, we’re humans. As players, there’s a sense of routine when you get to the bullpen, which (front offices) consider the most important part of the game. The seventh, eighth, or ninth — they (some front offices) expect it to be kind of mayhem, just be ready whenever. Well, it doesn’t happen like that. That’s why I think roles are very important. You need a closer and maybe a setup guy, and you can have two guys that intertwine in the seventh or eighth, especially if you have a left-hander and right-hander.”
Kennedy pointed out a factor that some seem to ignore — the fact that relievers are not robots but are human beings. “Some would say we’re traditionalists, but it’s more than that,” he explained. “We’re humans. You’re set to prepare. If you’re preparing for one or two innings, or even just say two innings, it’s different than if you’re getting ready for the last four innings. That’s crazy. I’ve tried it, and it’s really, really hard. It’s mentally draining, to be honest. We tried doing that in Kansas City in 2020, and I don’t know how guys do it, to be honest. Maybe if you’re younger, and you can do it, but, mentally, I get more gray hair still thinking about it.”
Ian Kennedy as a Teammate
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the saying goes. And Ian Kennedy, naturally, wants to make sure that every link in the chain is as strong as possible. During spring training, Kennedy did what he could to get to know his teammates as quickly as possible so he could begin helping them out. The biggest way he was able to do so was watching bullpen sessions. Kennedy’s goal was to “get to know the guy, watch him to see what makes him tick and listen to (pitching coach Brent) Strom. Get his little tips here and there. If I see something, I’ll say something if they’re willing to listen, but I’ll just wait. I’m not one of those guys that just throws it out there. I’ll wait and watch.”
The other relievers warmed up to him quickly. Kyle Nelson, a third-year lefty, said about Kennedy, “As a teammate, he’s fantastic. And he does a great job of keeping it light around the yard every day, especially down in the bullpen. He doesn’t bring his outings, good or bad, into the next day. He’s the same guy every day and has fun with it.” J.B. Wendelken added, “Ian is one of a kind. He’s funny, he’s doing his thing and still having fun doing it this many years into the Show. I feel like he brings something new every day, and it’s how you always keep a smile on your face.” Mark Melancon said he’s been that way for years. “He’s a jovial guy, always got a smile on his face. Great guy, always laughing, and he’s been that way since I’ve known him.”
A Good Role Model
Noe Ramirez didn’t know what to expect from Kennedy at first. “He’s got 16 years now in the big leagues,” Ramirez explained. “I’ve played with a lot of vets, and some guys are either really approachable, or not. Really intimidating, or not. But from day one, (Ian) was super social and is always laughing. That’s a great thing to have down in that ‘pen, a veteran who takes the game and treats it as that — a game.”
Ramirez made another point about Kennedy. “He’s a good role model for younger dudes, myself included, watching him go about his business. It’s pretty refreshing. Because there’s a point in baseball where it gets really hard to break out of a serious state, especially when you’re struggling. But even when he had a couple of bad outings to start the year, he was the same. He never changed anything. So just to have a veteran, who has proven himself, to look up to who just takes a game as a game is really cool to have. The success that we’re having as pitching staff as a whole, he could take a lot of credit for. Him and Mark (Melancon), to be honest.”
Ramirez continued, “(Everything about him) leads to a whole bunch of other good things. We’re loose all the time, just having fun. Everything he says, you listen. You lock in, because he’s really experienced and the way he words everything is just right. It doesn’t matter who you are. He’s talking to you about anything. So he’s a good role model, for sure.”
Wendelken learned another valuable philosophy from Kennedy, just by example. “Stay free. Don’t let the game slow you down or speed you up. Just be yourself. Every day, coming in, be who you are. There’s no need to change, no need to feel down about yourself. No need to be overlaunched or under that bar. Stay where you are. Be even keeled and trust your stuff.”
Ian Kennedy…the Coach?
Wendelken knows what he wants to see Ian Kennedy upon retirement. “I would love to see him as a bullpen coach.” He made sure to clarify, “I would not want to see him as a pitching coach; I want to see him as a bullpen coach. That’s what I want to see.”
Wendelken confirmed that his sentiment is “absolutely” because of Kennedy’s ability to keep the others so relaxed. “Fett’s the same way,” referring to bullpen coach Mike Fetters. “Fett keeps us all loose. Games are never dull. We’re always doing something, and it’s funny because you see a lot of resemblance between Fett and Ian. Not in pitching styles, obviously, but in personality. How those guys both — Fett 16 years, Ian 16 years —you don’t just have that much energy, that much happiness, and not play for a long time. You’ve got to be a good person. That’s why I would not want to see Ian as a pitching coach. I want to see him 100% as a bullpen coach. Just to be the guy that keeps the guys loose out there.”
Ramirez loves the idea. Smiling, Ramirez said, “He’d be the perfect bullpen coach. Honestly, he’d keep it all loose for sure, just joke around all the time. But I could definitely see that for sure. If he was under Torey (Lovullo, the Diamondbacks manager), he would probably drive him a little nuts just because we’re so loose out there. But that’s what we need. That’s something that’s…. I love coming to the ballpark and joking. This is our home away from home, so if we can be as comfortable as we possibly can, it’s always a plus for sure.”
Other Points about Ian Kennedy
Melancon likes Kennedy’s stuff. “He’s always had one of those carry fastballs that always plays up, and he’s always had a very good changeup. He doesn’t throw that now like he used to, but that was a very good pitch for him. He still has it. But he’s a very dynamic pitcher as far as knowing his stuff and knowing how to get hitters out.” Melancon added that it was “great” to hear that Kennedy would be setting games up for him, “partly because I know who he is and the good guy that he is, but also because he’s really good.”
Rookie Jose Herrera has enjoyed catching Ian Kennedy. “It’s always good,” Herrera stated. “The intensity that he brings to the game in late innings has always been awesome. His experience definitely is something that we always want to look into. He commands the ball pretty well. (Ian) was a starter for a long time in the big leagues, and now that he’s in the bullpen, the intensity that he has when he faces batters is incredible. He’s a warrior, and I like that about him. It’s been fun so far to catch him.”
Nelson wants fans to know that Kennedy is “a regular, good guy. He’s obviously a fantastic pitcher and a very talented guy who’s been doing it for a long time, but he, as a human being, is just a regular, good person who likes to have fun and smile and laugh and enjoy himself. So I think that’s really cool.”
Wendelken put it even more basically. “He’s an all-around good dude.”
Teammate Messages for Ian Kennedy
Both Ramirez and Wendelken wanted this piece to end with personal messages to Kennedy. This author was more than happy to oblige.
Ramirez: “I’m grateful for the Big Boiiiii.”
Wendelken: “Never change, Big Boiiiii!”