After the Red Sox made their biggest splash of the winter and signed David Price, they very well could have gone after another starting pitcher. Whether that meant giving up prospects for someone like Shelby Miller, more money for Johnny Cueto or Jeff Samardzija, or just taking a chance on a hurler such as Mat Latos, they had options available.
Instead, they kept their faith that Joe Kelly is deserving of a major-league rotation spot. This will be a big season for the former Cardinal, who has the [editor’s note: great] stuff people dream on but has yet to put up the consistent production to go with it. In all likelihood, 2016 will be Kelly’s last chance at a starting gig in the majors. If he can’t prove himself as at least a consistent back-end starter, it’ll be time to see what he can do in a full-time relief role.
But let’s talk about that stuff for a minute. It’s fun (for some) to joke about how great his stuff is, but there’s no denying Kelly possesses an expansive and intriguing arsenal. Unfortunately, for all the pitches he has, the 27-year-old has turned into an incredibly predictable pitcher. Per Brooks Baseball, the righty has thrown his sinker over 56 percent of the time in his career, and he threw it 57 percent of the time in 2015.
Unfortunately, for all the pitches he has, the 27-year-old Kelly has turned into an incredibly predictable pitcher.
All that predictability leads to a version of Kelly that’s average at best, and below average much more often than that. Over the course of his career, Kelly has pitched 461.2 innings. In that time, he’s put up a 3.82 ERA with a lackluster 4.13 FIP, 4.43 DRA and 111 cFIP. He was more or less the same guy last year, with an inflated ERA and FIP but improved DRA and cFIP. Along with that, his strikeout rate rose from his career norms, as Kelly struck out 18.8 percent of the batters he faced.
Unfortunately, his swinging-strike rate didn’t rise appropriately. The 19.1 percent whiff rate he garnered per swing ranked 93rd among the 110 starters who threw at least 2000 pitches in 2015. That’s what happens when you rely so heavily on one pitch. To make matters worse, that one pitch didn’t do it’s most important job last season. Despite leaning so heavily on the sinker, Kelly’s ground-ball rate fell all the way down to 46 percent in 2015, his first season below 52 percent.
If he’s going to stick as a starter, something has to change. Everything detailed above describes a pitcher who’s desperately in need of adaptation. It’s clear to me that Kelly needs to become less predictable, which means relying more heavily on his secondary pitches. His sinker just isn’t effective any more. Major-league hitters adjust, and they whiffed on less than 10 percent of his sinkers last season. More importantly, the ground-ball rate on the offering fell all the way down to 44 percent last year. That reality right there should be the final straw for Kelly’s repertoire approach.
So, now the task is to figure out which pitch he should turn to. The simple answer is all of his offspeed offerings — a changeup, a slider and a curveball. Amazingly, he didn’t throw a single one of those more than 15 percent of the time last season, despite enjoying some good results. All three pitches induced grounders on at least half the balls that were put in play against them and garnered whiff rates of over 25 percent.
It wasn’t just last season, either. Kelly’s secondaries have continued that trend over his entire career.
It’s possible that Kelly has something special in his changeup, and he’s just completely neglecting it.
There’s one pitch in particular, though, that Kelly should be focusing on. It’s possible that he has something special in his changeup, and he’s just completely neglecting it. In 2015, he threw the offering only 11 percent of the time despite great results. To whit, exactly half of balls put in play against his changeup ended up on the ground, while batters also whiffed 31 percent of the time. Additionally, Kelly didn’t give up any home runs with the pitch.
If Kelly really wants to shake things up, he can start using it against right-handed hitters. Typically, changeups are saved to fight off a platoon advantage for the hitter, but Kelly is in need of a drastic change. As it turns out, he has acknowledged this himself in a conversation with Brian MacPherson. He mentions a new technique for the pitch, but really all he needs to do is use it at a higher rate. As MacPherson mentions in his piece, Kelly hardly ever threw the changeup against righties. In fact, he only did it 46 times last year — under four percent in total — and has only turned to the offering five percent of the time throughout his career.
When Kelly has thrown it, however, his changeup has been successful. Over his career, looking at the biggest available sample, righties have whiffed 31 percent of the time against Kelly’s changeup, while 59 percent of their batted balls have been on the ground. It is worth noting that there have been some home run problems involved, as righties also have a 22 percent HR/FB+LD ratio against the offering.
The obvious caveat is that Kelly’s changeup — and all his other secondaries, for that matter — might be successful because he throws them so sparingly. Once batters adjust to a new strategy, the results could be ugly. Nevertheless, he’s a boring and predictable pitcher right now, and the results haven’t been good enough. Batters know they can wait for their pitch. Despite hitting the zone at roughly an average rate in 2015, opponents swung at pitches from Kelly less often than all but two of the 113 qualified pitchers who threw at least 2000 pitches. On the plus side, this leads to a ton of two-strike counts. Unfortunately, largely due to his lack of secondary pitches, he had the 11th worst K/BB ratio in two-strike counts among hurlers with 200 such plate appearances.
All this brings us back to the same point I’ve been hammering home: Kelly needs to change something. The most obvious (and potentially most lucrative) chance would be a greater reliance on his secondaries. That can mean different pitches on different nights, but Kelly’s changeup should be the one he leans on the most, even against right-handed hitters.
There’s no guarantee it will work, but Kelly has little choice but to try something new. It’s time for him to make a change and swing for the fences with that impressive repertoire we’ve heard so much about.
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