Joe Kelly

Roster Recap: In the Bullpen, Joe Kelly Has Great Stuff™

Welcome to BP Boston’s second annual Roster Recap series. Over the next few months, we’ll be analyzing 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. From MVP-candidate right fielders to reserve relievers, we want to give you a look at every Red Sox who might matter in 2017. View the complete list of Roster Recaps here. Enjoy!


Getting your teeth cleaned. Scheduling an oil change. Filing taxes. Shopping for Valentine’s Day gifts. We all have things we put off until we absolutely have to do them. It’s part of what makes us human. But sooner or later, we realize that yes, our teeth really do need attention, our engine really is overheating, the IRS is real and our significant others will be mad even if they say they don’t want gifts (an especially painful lesson).

For years and years the Red Sox put off moving Joe Kelly to the bullpen. They knew they’d need to get around to it sooner or later, but by gosh work just kept popping up and they had prospects to trade and divisions to win, ya know? But 2016 was finally the season. And folks, let me tell you, when Joe Kelly is a reliever, my god does Joe Kelly Have Great Stuff™.

What Went Right in 2016

Joe Kelly in the bullpen went right. After six bad starts to begin the season, Kelly was banished to the minors in early June. He’d remain there for six weeks, emerging as a bullpen option on July 25. In his first outing as a reliever, Kelly allowed a run and coughed up two hits, but foreshadowing doesn’t always pay off. That was one of just two runs Kelly allowed in his 17.2 innings as a fireman, and John Farrell began trusting Kelly with higher-leverage situations as the season progressed.

In the end, Kelly posted a 1.02 ERA and held batters to a .203/.261/.297 line as a reliever. He struck out more than 30 percent of the batters he faced, his walk and homer rates plummeted and his fastball routinely touched the upper 90s. The stuff was great. The results were great. He looked great.

What Went Wrong in 2016

Joe Kelly in the rotation continued to go wrong. Those six starts we mentioned? Kelly allowed 21 earned runs in 22.1 innings. He walked 16 percent of batters faced. He gave up four homers. It was, to use a scouting term, woof city.

You can sort of understand why the Red Sox gave Kelly one more shot in the rotation. It’s easy to forget now, but he ended 2015 on a dominant eight-game stretch. Eduardo Rodriguez was on the DL. Clay Buchholz was Clay Buchholz. It’s not as though Boston was overflowing with talented starting options. Still, we knew this was probably coming. Scouts have thrown the reliever label on Kelly dating back to his days as a prospect. Sox fans have been screaming for this move since early 2015. It was past due. 

Outlook for 2017

The ninth inning belongs to Craig Kimbrel and the eighth to Tyler Thornburg, but the seventh inning could very well become the property of Kelly. You can’t expect him to be as dominant in the bullpen for a full season as he was for 17.2 innings last season, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see him develop into a talent worthy of serving as a primary set-up guy on a first-division roster. We’ll see if Kelly can hold up for a full season as a reliever, and we’ll see if his walk issues are truly behind him. If so, he’ll be a key piece in a suddenly deep Red Sox bullpen. If not, we’ll basically have two Matt Barneses (Barnesai?). That’s not exciting, but it could be worse.

You know what we won’t have? We won’t have any more of Joe Kelly in the rotation. No more 24-pitch innings with three walks. No more 94 mph meatballs down the middle. No more Cy Young jokes.

Just Joe Kelly. Just Joe Kelly and his Great Stuff™.

Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images

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