Welcome to BP Boston’s Roster Recap series! Over the next four months, we’ll be breaking down every player on Boston’s 40-man roster and many of their top prospects in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the Red Sox roster’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what we can expect moving forward. There’s no better time than the offseason to review the best (there was some best!) and worst (there was a lot of worst!) of the past year in red and navy. You can see previous editions of Roster Recap here.
In the midst of a disappointing 2014, the Red Sox dealt John Lackey to the Cardinals for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly. That’s….not looking so hot right now. While the former is no longer on the 40-man roster — never mind the active roster — the latter is still being given a chance to tip the scales for that trade. It’s unlikely it will ever look like a good deal for Boston, but the team is still holding out hope that Kelly can be a solid starter and make it look merely bad instead of undeniably horrendous.
What Went Right in 2015
As you can probably guess from that extremely negative intro, not a whole hell of a lot went right for Kelly this past year. Still, there were at least a few positive notes that the right-hander can build on in the year ahead. Chief among those positives was an increased strikeout rate. Granted, it wasn’t a great K-rate, or even an above-average one, but at 7.4 per nine innings, it was a definite improvement over his previous career norms. We’ve long heard about the diverse arsenal that Kelly possesses, and he finally put it to good(ish) use in 2015. Whether or not it’s sustainable is another story. His swinging strike rate was much better than his career rate, but it was consistent with his rate in 2014 when he only set down 6.2 batters per nine. However, he did get more batters to chase pitches out of the zone than he did in 2014, and got them to whiff on those pitches more than any other year in his career.
On another note, Kelly performed very well down the stretch in 2015. After a brutal first half that eventually put him in Pawtucket for a spell, he pitched to a 3.77 ERA and a 2.78 K/BB in the second half. He was particularly great in August, putting up a 2.68 ERA and a 2.55 K/BB. That stretch wasn’t all good news, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Looking again at his overall season, both DRA and cFIP were relatively high on Kelly. “Relatively” is the operative word here, of course, since they thought he was merely average rather than terribad. To wit, he finished the year with an even 100 DRA- and a 104 cFIP. Marking him as an average-ish pitcher isn’t the highest praise, but it’s a step forward in his career.
Finally, my phone autocorrects his name to “Joe Jelly” and, well, I think that’s pretty neat.
What Went Wrong in 2015
Where to begin? I guess we can start with Kelly’s eternal problem, which is his command. Having a full arsenal is great, but it doesn’t do much if you can’t locate it where you want to. Once again, he left too many pitches over the plate and major-league hitters are always going to punish you for that. The 27-year-old gave up a full home run per nine innings, and over 12 percent of the fly balls he allowed left the yard. That’s the third time in four years that he has allowed a double-digit HR/FB%. On top of that, he also allowed a .320 BABIP, and while the Red Sox defense played a role in that, much of it was due to hard contact. The numbers say he allowed a lot of it, and the eye test corroborates that claim. It seems batters knew when to take advantage of him too. Although they didn’t swing at many of his in-zone pitches (he ranked 136th in Z_Swing_RT among 145 pitchers with at least 1500 pitches) in 2015, they took advantage (he ranked 28th among those same 145 pitchers in Z_Contact_RT) when they did.
Along this same vein, Kelly lost his bread-and-butter in the ground ball. He’s always been so intriguing because he was able to combine big velocity with ground balls. If he ever turned that velocity into strikeouts, it would be a stellar combination. Instead, he took a step backwards here in 2015, putting up a ground ball rate of just 46 percent. It was the first time Kelly has ever had a rate below 50 percent.
Now, we get back to that strong run he had in the second half last season. While the K/BB stayed mostly the same, it was almost entirely because of his walks, with his K-rate staying essentially equal with his first-half rate. In fact, when you add his home run rate to that mix, his FIP was actually worse in the second half than it was in the first. And although that improved walk rate is great, I found here that there are some reasons to believe it’s not at all sustainable.
Finally, and this is much worse than anything else he’s ever done, Kelly inspired Ben Carsley to create a successful meme. It is ruining my life.
What to Expect in 2016
Realistically, this is Boston’s last chance to redeem that Lackey trade. With the way things look now, it appears Kelly will get another opportunity to carve out a permanent spot in the Red Sox rotation, and it will likely be his last shot. With the back-end depth they have in Henry Owens, Brian Johnson and Steven Wright (as well as some possible pieces brought in later on minor-league deals), it’s hard to see a very long leash for Kelly this year. If he fails in the rotation, there is some solace in him getting a shot in the bullpen. It’s impossible to say with certainty that he’ll succeed there, but he’s been good in that role in the past, albeit in a small sample. Simply put, we haven’t seen many reasons he can be good as a starter, and they might as well see how he’ll fare as a reliever. Despite the clear road to a rotation spot at this point, it’s my expectation he’ll be pitching in relief at least by July. If I said I had any concrete expectations beyond that, I’d be lying to you. And I wouldn’t do that.
Photo by Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports Images