WASHINGTON -- When word began to spread last offseason that Royals right-hander Ian Kennedy might be converted to the bullpen, Kennedy admits that he wasn’t exactly all-in with the notion, at least not at first.
But now as Kennedy, 34, has cemented his role as the team’s closer -- and truthfully, as one of the few bright spots on a struggling team -- he is beginning to view this transition as a career changer.
Kennedy is 11-of-14 in save opportunities with a 3.60 ERA, suffering a bump in the road during the Royals' 7-4 win over the Nationals on Friday. Despite Kennedy's first blown save since May 26, Kansas City was able to mount a comeback in extras and push their closer's tough night into the background.
“I really do like it,” Kennedy said of closing. “It is fun to contribute. My first year here in ’16 was my last good, full season. And now, it’s fun to be good at something again and contribute.”
Kennedy’s five-year, $70 million deal with the Royals expires after 2020. And Kennedy told MLB.com that he wants to keep pitching after next season. Being a solid closer certainly could extend his career.
“I do want to keep pitching,” Kennedy said. “You can sign one-year or two-year deals, because even though you’re older, teams know you can still pitch and help a team. You look around the league and you see that all the time.”
The Royals began considering the bullpen transition for Kennedy as a way to possibly keep him healthier, and after two injury-plagued seasons, he is feeling great this year, he reports.
“The body feels good, and I know that’s part of what went into the decision,” he said. “It seemed like the last two years, I would need all of those four days in between starts to get healthy enough and get ready to pitch again.
“I think it was just the volume of throws you make as a starter. And I really use a lot of my lower body to pitch, and it took its toll. But now I’m throwing more often, but much less total volume per outing. I feel like I can bounce back quicker.”
The Royals also anticipated a spike in Kennedy’s velocity in shorter stints, as was the case with Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar when they were converted to the bullpen.
Kennedy’s fastball velocity spike has been more subtle, going from 91-92 mph with his four-seamer to sitting more in the 93-94 mph range, while touching 95.
“We’ve seen lately more of that jump with Ian,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “He’s getting to 94-95 more consistently. And he attacks. He’s a veteran who doesn’t panic, and that’s a big thing for a closer.”
Kennedy likes the excitement of his new role.
“To be able to close out the Indians with that lineup on the road, that was an adrenaline rush,” he said. “You don’t get that as a starter, at least I never really did, because now you’re closing out a game with everything on the line.
“It’s a lot different, especially on the road. The crowd knows it’s the last at-bat, so the fans really get into it. It’s definitely different than pitching the seventh or eighth. This is something I feel I can keep doing for awhile.”