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D-backs' Kennedy has found his swagger

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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PHILADELPHIA

I remember talking to Ian Kennedy before a start he made on FOX for the Yankees in late April 2008. Kennedy had opened the season in the rotation, but already was in danger of losing his spot. He sounded unsure of himself, almost scared.

No more.

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“You can just see his swagger on the mound,” Kennedy’s teammate, Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz, said Wednesday. “It’s not arrogance. It’s not cockiness. It’s just positive swagger.

“I love watching him strike out a guy and walk off the mound. He’s got it, whatever that 'it' is.”

And now, less than two years after getting traded to the Diamondbacks, Kennedy is one of the best pitchers in the National League.

He still doesn’t look the part, not at 6-feet, 190 pounds. He still doesn’t act the part, either, at least not off the field. In fact, Kennedy just sort of smiled when I informed him of Putz’s words.

The difference in Kennedy, though, is quite evident. He is tied for the NL lead with 15 wins, ranks 10th in the league with a 3.12 ERA and is effective both on the road and at hitter-friendly Chase Field.

Kennedy, 26, also has won seven straight starts as he prepares to face the Phillies on Thursday night — the longest active streak in the majors and tied with the Yankees’ CC Sabathia and TigersJustin Verlander for the longest this season.

One scout remains skeptical of Kennedy’s success, noting that the right-hander is taking advantage of light-hitting NL West opponents. The numbers support the scout’s opinion somewhat — Kennedy is 6-0 with a 2.14 ERA against the NL West, 9-3 with a 3.86 ERA against all other opponents.

Three other scouts, however, offered a contrasting view, saying that Kennedy is indeed becoming an elite pitcher. His strikeout-to-walk ratio and opponents' OPS, both of which rank in the top 12 in the NL, suggest the same.

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“If you grade him out, his stuff doesn’t grade out great,” one scout said. “But if you watch him pitch, he grades out great.

“I don’t want to compare him to (Greg) Maddux. He’s not Maddux. But he’s got a good pitching IQ, a really, really good feel for the flow of the game.”

That’s what the Yankees saw when they selected Kennedy out of USC with the 21st overall pick in 2006. For a time, the Yankees thought as highly of Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes as they do of Ivan Nova, Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos now. But young pitchers do not always follow a linear progression, particularly in the AL East.

Kennedy was 1-4 with a 6.03 ERA in 14 games with the Yankees between 2007 and '09, all but two of which were starts. He looks back on those days honestly, without a trace of regret.

“You’re getting your butt kicked around for a little bit, I don’t care who you are, you start to think too much,” Kennedy said.

“You get away from what you’re used to, what you did in college, how you got to the big leagues. Struggling will make you do that. People can lie and say they don’t (change). But that’s the human side of it. You really do.

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“It made me grow up a lot quicker. I would never trade it for anything. I was first called up when I was 22. I was 23 at the start of my first full season. When you’re 23 years old in New York, it doesn’t matter who you are, it’s difficult on anybody.

“I struggled. It was one of the first times I struggled that bad. But it really did make me grow up and learn a lot quickly. It made me a lot better. I think it made me who I am today.”

A pitcher who, to hear Diamondbacks second baseman Kelly Johnson tell it, is almost the exact opposite of what he was with the Yankees.

“He’s absolutely relentless in the strike zone,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t deviate. He doesn’t panic. He doesn’t stray.”

Such conviction is important for Kennedy, whose fastball averages only 89.8 mph, according to Fangraphs.com. One scout recalls being alarmed by Kennedy’s lack of velocity in the spring of 2010, the pitcher’s first with the Diamondbacks, thinking Kennedy had “no weapons, no chance.”

But Kennedy throws harder now; he is sneaky with his fastball, Diamondbacks pitching coach Charles Nagy said, touching 93-94 in tight situations, with runners on base.

He succeeds with fastball command. He throws strikes in any count with his changeup and curve. He jams hitters, gets them to chase, even adjusts and becomes more efficient if his pitch count in the early innings is high.

“He controls the plate,” Putz said. “He doesn’t just nibble on the corners. He’ll brush your ass back in a heartbeat.”

In short, he is justifying the faith that Yankees GM Brian Cashman once had in him, the faith that former Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes showed when he acquired him in the three-team Curtis Granderson blockbuster with the Yankees and Tigers in December 2009.

The deal has worked out spectacularly well, helping produce three of the six current division leaders and candidates for the AL MVP and NL Cy Young awards.

Granderson is the potential MVP, Kennedy the potential Cy Young.

From tentative Yankee to swaggering Diamondback, the pitcher’s transformation is complete.

Tagged: Tigers, Yankees, Diamondbacks, CC Sabathia, J.J. Putz, Ian Kennedy

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