After posting the Midwest League’s worst record in the first half, the TinCaps are surprisingly poised to clinch a playoff spot, owning a nine game lead over the South Bend Cubs with only two weeks of the season remaining. And while some of the attributing factors to this drastic turnaround are obvious– the rapid rise of Fernando Tatis Jr., the tantalizing rotation headlined by Michel Baez and Pedro Avila, and a decision to promote few of the team’s premier players-, it is easy to overlook the crucial role that catcher A.J. Kennedy has played in the growth of the team.
Initially, the notion that a 23 year old who owns a miserable .143/.199/.198 slash line in Single-A ball has played an indispensable part in the team’s success may seem scoff-worthy, but not only is Fort Wayne 24 and 14 when Kennedy is behind the plate, but his presence and leadership has been so impactful that the clubhouse has continued to teem with praise, gratitude, and trust in the catcher since he joined the team in early June. Much of that expression has been unsolicited as a young pitching staff has frequently steered interviews about them towards the role Kennedy has played in preparing and leading them.
“Yeah, he’s a great guy to have around not only for his experience in the game, but he’s a fierce competitor, and he definitely gets after it. He’s a field general,” Mason Thompson told me. “He definitely knows how to call a game, and he gets a really good feel from the umpire, as well as gets a really good feel for myself and the other young pitchers. I think it’s definitely helped our pitching staff to be able to go out there and be comfortable with the guy behind the plate. I mean we had guys before like Marcus Greene, who did it that did a heck of a job, but A.J. is really coming here and giving us a boost as a pitching staff. I owe him a lot of credit for that.”
Similarly, Reggie Lawson, who joined the TinCaps in May out of extended Spring Training, echoed Thompson’s words, saying, “A.J. has definitely played a role in my success…He calls a great game, and I just follow his lead. And just believing in yourself and knowing that you belong here play a role as you get settled in. Kennedy helped with that by pretty much just being big in helping me believe I belong here and that I should keep trusting the work I put in.”
Yet, it isn’t merely the pitching staff that is quick to express their feelings about Kennedy. After Adrian Morejon’s debut last month, Chris Goff of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette and I began an interview with Tincap’s Manager Anthony Contreras, asking for his thoughts about Morejon’s performance, and when A.J. Kennedy, whose hit had been the difference in the game, unknowingly stepped out of the locker-room, Contreras cracked a sly smile and loudly offered, “You mean A.J.Kennedy’s night….,” and then exchanged a few jovial words with Kennedy before answering our question. The entire exchange between the two lasted just a few seconds, but it was evident that it was a glimpse into the strong nature of their relationship, so naturally, I shifted the interview later on to ask about Kennedy’s night.
“AJ and I have a good relationship,” Contreras said. “I’ve had him since his first year in pro ball and obviously a very good defensive catcher, but he’s been searching to try and find his swing, but anytime you can provide run support for your team and the game inning hit like that is huge for him. He’s been making solid contact but not being able to get anything to fall, so for him to come in this type of atmosphere today and get us on the right track at home is good for him.”
Contreras also spoke to Kennedy’s ability to acclimate the younger pitching staff to full season ball, saying, “I think because he’s so good defensively it allows these young pitchers to be confident that even if they throw the breaking ball in the dirt and not be able to guide it too much they have confidence that he’s going to be able to block it. He’s going to be able to do things out there and receive really well and steal some strikes for these pitchers, calls a good game and anytime you can bring those elements together with a young pitching staff, you’re going to get some good outings.”
A Nuanced and Insightful Approach
In addition to Kennedy’s ability and innate leadership skills, he tirelessly works to better understand the pitching staff, keeping booklets on their repertoires and tendencies so that he can better prepare and serve them. It’s a practice he adopted in his first stint with Fort Wayne. “In college, you see the same pitchers,” Kennedy elaborated, “but here, I see a new guys every other week pretty much. Or when I was going up and down, I had to keep booklets so that I knew what secondary pitches they had and what pitches they could consistently throw for strikes. I adopted that my first year here.”
This detailed approach has enabled to him to get the most out of his pitchers by calling the game with a keen sense of awareness regarding their strengths and demeanor. Reggie Lawson, for example, has struggled with inconsistency this season, especially when Kennedy isn’t behind home plate. In the six games where that has occurred, Lawson has averaged under 4 innings per start and registered a miserable 9.00 ERA and 7.71 BB/9 line, but when Kennedy is his catcher, it’s a completely different story.
To give some insight there, Kennedy shared that he pushes “[Lawson] to be Reggie Lawson and nobody else” rather than try and conform him to anyone else. And it isn’t just in games according to Kennedy, who said, “During batting practice, I can joke around with him and keep him loose. During bullpen sessions, I hold him accountable on every pitch, and he’s actually getting after it. Sometimes bullpens can get lackadaisical, and I’m not saying that about Reggie or our bullpen, but I just try and make sure he’s on every pitch because I can tell he’s going to be a special pitcher someday.”
Consequently, Lawson has thrived when Kennedy is behind the dish, registering a 3.73 ERA and a 2.7 BB/9 while striking out almost two batters more per nine innings.
Embracing His Role
With the sort of skill set that Kennedy possesses, it’s unlikely an accident that he was optioned all the way from Double-A back to Single-A when he struggled to find his swing early this year. He was far too impactful as a catcher to leave on the bench in San Antonio during a playoff push or to share duties with Austin Allen at Lake Elsinore, so evidently acclimating a young pitching staff at Fort Wayne seemed not only the pragmatic thing to do but perhaps the best decision for the long-term of the organization. Kennedy has humbly embraced the role thrust on him by the organization as he works on his swing.
“Bouncing back from last year to this year and bouncing back from affiliates has been fun,” Kennedy offered. “I’ve met a lot of new people and learned quite a few things, but coming back to Fort Wayne, I kind of feel like I’m the older guy who needs to show an example for those younger guys and show them some of the ways that older guys go about their business every day….If I see something they’re doing that day mechanically, I try to go out to the mound and calm them down and point those things out, but I’m always there for them …it’s never mine..i just suggest what they want to throw, and they throw it. I’m just there for them.”
–Presently, Kennedy remains out with a concussion, but there’s no doubt the team hopes for a speedy recovery as he looks to guide the Fort Wayne pitching staff into a deep playoff run.