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Kennedy finds home, success in Royals' bullpen

@cdenicola13
September 7, 2019

MIAMI -- Royals closer Ian Kennedy continues to learn in his first season out of the bullpen, calling the role both exciting and mentally taxing. Kennedy, who recorded his 27th save of the season and his MLB-leading 16th since the All-Star break in Friday night's 3-0 win over the Marlins,

MIAMI -- Royals closer Ian Kennedy continues to learn in his first season out of the bullpen, calling the role both exciting and mentally taxing.

Kennedy, who recorded his 27th save of the season and his MLB-leading 16th since the All-Star break in Friday night's 3-0 win over the Marlins, is the sixth MLB pitcher to record a 20-win and a 20-save season, per Sportradar, and the first since John Smoltz.

The 34-year-old right-hander entered this season without any saves, with just two relief appearances and 289 career starts.

"For me, 30 saves is quite an accomplishment, especially being a first-time closer, and he's knocking on the door of it," manager Ned Yost said. "We knew coming into Spring Training it would hopefully keep him healthier. We knew his stuff was still good, but he was slowed by injuries the last two years and we wanted to try and keep him more productive. Looking at our bullpen, figured that'd be a pretty good arm to put down there and eventually work his way into the closer's role. He did."

According to Statcast, Kennedy's average four-seam fastball velocity has increased by nearly three mph (91.9 to 94.4) from last season. The same for his cutter (87.7 to 91.4 mph). Since Kennedy doesn't need to worry about outings of multiple innings, he equated the spike to that of a sprint rather than a long-distance race.

Kennedy also has changed the usage of his arsenal, turning to his fastball (57.4 to 66.9 percent) and cutter (10.3 to 16) more and his curveball (19.4 to 15.2) and changeup (10.3 to 1.9) less. That ties into not mixing and matching as much as he had to as a starter.

"You don't need to throw four pitches. Some guys do. I have the luxury, I still have a changeup, I still warm up with all four of my pitches," said Kennedy, who admitted it took time to adjust to getting his offspeed stuff ready quicker and figuring out the number of warmup throws he needed.

"It's just, when do you need it? You go with your strengths, but sometimes their strength is your strength, so hopefully just bet on yours. Sometimes you see what their weakness is and if it's your second-best [pitch], then maybe you go with that."

Aside from more aggressive batters, another thing Kennedy has gotten accustomed to is the workload, which is much different from that of a starter. The Royals check with each reliever on a daily basis to see how his arm feels.

Over the past week, Kennedy has pitched in five games -- including back-to-back outings twice. But if there's anything he has learned in the role, it's that the appearances come in waves. While Kennedy has been busy over the last seven days, Kansas City needed to find him innings in early August.

"They've done a really good job to keep me fresh that way," Kennedy said. "That's also another thing: One time I went six days, and I think I've done it twice, and I've given up runs every single time. That's something I need to get better at. How many times can I go off the mound? How many days should I take a break in between throwing off the mound? ... I feel like I'm still learning, and it's not like I've been doing it for a long time."

Supporting a good cause

For the fourth straight season, the Royals helped raise awareness for childhood cancer by wearing gold ribbon decals and wristbands during Saturday night's game as part of an MLB initiative. MLB's "Childhood Cancer Awareness Day" is in recognition of September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in collaboration with Stand Up To Cancer. Childhood cancer is the leading cause of death by disease among children in the United States and Canada.

Christina De Nicola is a reporter and game producer for MLB.com based in Miami. Follow her on Twitter @CDeNicola13.