The Red Sox will officially get another season of Joe Kelly after the two sides agreed to a one-year deal on Friday to avoid arbitration.
On the scale of significant baseball happenings in Boston this offseason, this one is quite low. But Kelly’s importance to the Red Sox next season shouldn’t be understated.
The right-hander’s 2015 campaign was mostly forgettable. He looked strong in his first two starts before sputtering over the next four months, leading to a demotion to Triple-A Pawtucket and calls from local pundits for his permanent removal from the rotation.
Kelly was a major disappointment. A series of shellackings left him with a 6.11 ERA over 17 starts on Aug. 2. It didn’t matter that he was a hard-thrower who had shown flashes of dominance (or as our esteemed editor might say, had great stuff), he wasn’t even nearing expectations. Watching John Lackey carry St. Louis and Allen Craig stumble through the minors didn’t make it any easier to bear.
But Kelly turned it around, giving up two runs or fewer over his next seven starts before ending his season on another low — a four-run letdown over 2.1 innings in Baltimore on Sept. 15. That last start, however, was an anomaly over an eight-start stretch in which he posted a 2.35 ERA. The end result in 2015 was a 4.18 FIP, 7.37 K/9 and a 1.2 WARP in a season in which he tossed 134.1 innings over 25 starts.
Not bad given where he was in July.
So what does that mean for Kelly in 2016? Right now he looks like the favorite to be the No. 5 starter in a Red Sox rotation improved by the signing of David Price, although Henry Owens, Brian Johnson and Steven Wright could all make their case for that spot by the end of spring training. If Kelly’s 2015 performance is any indication, the Red Sox may have one of the most complete rotations in baseball. That’s because Kelly’s numbers prove he’s good enough to start at the back end of an elite rotation.
To make my point, I took the top five pitching staffs in baseball from last season according to Fangraphs’ FIP — the Cubs, Pirates, Dodgers, Nationals and Cardinals — and compared their No. 5 starter’s 2015 season to Kelly’s. In other words, I compared Kelly to Dan Haren, Charlie Morton, Alex Wood, Doug Fister and Jaime Garcia. The results were encouraging. Take a look:
Joe Kelly: 25 starts; 134.1 innings pitched; 4.18 FIP; 7.37 K/9; 4.82 ERA; 1.2 WARP
Here’s how the others looked:
Dan Haren: 32 starts; 187.1 innings pitched; 4.61 FIP; 6.34 K/9; 3.60 ERA; 1.2 WARP
Haren started what would be his final major league season in Miami before being traded to the contending Cubs in the middle of the season. He wasn’t quite the pitcher he was in Oakland and Arizona, but he was a viable enough No. 5 to help Chicago reach the postseason. He did all that while posting a worse FIP and strikeout rate than Kelly.
Charlie Morton: 23 starts; 129 innings pitched; 4.19 FIP; 6.70 K/9; 4.81 ERA; -0.4 WARP
Morton was worse than Kelly in every statistical category, yet it was still good enough for the Pirates to finish with a 3.36 team FIP — good for second best in baseball — and return to the postseason.
Mike Bolsinger: 21 starts; 109.1 innings pitched; 3.91 FIP; 8.07 K/9; 3.62 ERA; 1.0 WARP
Bolsinger was pretty good in his first full season in the majors, although not that much better than Kelly was. Kelly had a slightly better WARP, but what set Bolsinger apart was his consistency throughout the season, something the Red Sox will need from Kelly. Bolsinger allowed more than three runs in just five of his starts last season.
Doug Fister: 25 starts; 103 innings pitched; 4.55 FIP; 5.50 K/9; 4.19 ERA; -1.4 WARP
Fister edged Kelly in ERA, but everything else played in Kelly’s favor statistically. Fister missed a few starts in the middle of the season when he went on the disabled list with a right forearm injury, but that’s no excuse for the righty having one of the worst seasons of his career. Joe Ross, a 22-year-old rookie, slid into Fister’s spot while he was on the DL and finished with a 3.42 FIP over 16 games, 13 of which were starts. The Nationals were the lone team in the top five that didn’t make the postseason.
Jaime Garcia: 20 starts; 129.2 innings pitched; 3.00 FIP; 6.73 K/9; 2.43 ERA; 2.7 WARP
Garcia was by far the best of the players mentioned on this list, and his numbers far exceeded Kelly’s. The Cardinals finished with the best record in baseball despite missing ace Adam Wainwright for most of the season. Garcia was a big reason for that success.
Kelly clearly can be a No. 5 on a top-tier starting rotation, as he stacks right up with the No. 5s on some of the best rotations in baseball from last season. That’s not to say, of course, Kelly as the No. 5 will be the difference between the Red Sox having a good rotation and a bad one. The reason why the aforementioned teams were successful is because starters one through four were good as well. But if Boston is ever going to have one of the best rotations in baseball, Kelly has proven successfully fill that role as the fifth guy.
Sox fans need to view Kelly not as what they hoped he would be when acquired, but rather the back-of-the-rotation starter that he is. That’s what the Red Sox are probably going to get, and that’s OK if everyone else does their part.
Of course, if Kelly looks like he did from May through July, Boston still has options. Owens posted a 4.28 FIP in 11 big league starts and is still just 23, Johnson was perhaps Pawtucket’s best pitcher before suffering a season-ending elbow injury and Wright can hold the Red Sox’s rotation over for a time if necessary.
But this spot is Kelly’s to lose. It may be another roller coaster season for him at times, but expect him to be a major part of a much-improved Red Sox pitching staff.
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