The Key to the Red Sox Season Might be… Joe Kelly
Joe Kelly might be the most maddening pitcher in all of baseball. The former starter now turned reliever has Aroldis Chapman type velocity on his fastball, but loves to use his breaking ball in pivotal situations. Most recently he allowed a two-run home run on a breaking ball that proved to be the difference in the Boston Red Sox 5-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays prior to the All-Star break. This is Joe Kelly in a nutshell. Although his fastball can reach in excess of 103 MPH, he seemingly prefers his breaking ball. Despite this most recent blip, Joe Kelly is quietly having an amazing season. While Joe Kelly may have given up the home run that directly led that Red Sox loss, it was Kelly’s first loss of the season and just the second time this year when he has given up the lead. While everyone has (rightfully) concentrated on the impossibly good season Craig Kimbrel is having, Joe Kelly’s production has gone mostly unnoticed. If the Red Sox want to maintain their standing atop the AL East, Joe Kelly will need to be just as good in the second half of the season as he was in the first.
Kelly is currently on the 10-Day DL with a hamstring injury, which is why I figured it is the perfect time to see how important his contributions have been this season. This is a crucial couple of weeks for the Red Sox and their bullpen. However, if you had told anybody in May of last season that the Red Sox would be sorely missing Kelly, they would have looked at you as if you had multiple heads. To get a grip on the turn around from their flame-throwing righty, and how he has put together his superb 2017 campaign, you have to go back to Joe Kelly’s rollercoaster 2016 season.
Joe Kelly’s 2016 Rollercoaster Ride
For years the Red Sox (among other teams) drooled about Kelly’s potential as a starter. “Could you imagine a starter who can regularly throw 97 MPH with a nasty breaking ball and a solid change?” With all the potential in the world at his fingertips, the Red Sox slotted him into the starting rotation to begin 2016. Well, it was only potential. He simply could not put the entire package together. He made his final start of 2016 on June 1st, allowing seven runs to the Orioles in 2.1 innings pitched. The great “Joe Kelly as a top of the line starter” experiment had ended.
Instead of completely giving up on him though, the Red Sox decided to send him down to Pawtucket and tell him to concentrate on his blazing fastball and knee-buckling breaking ball. While most pitchers would have gotten disheartened, Kelly manned up, went down to Triple-A and learned how to harness his devastating pitches. Kelly was called back up on July 25th. While he did give up a run in that initial relief appearance, the Red Sox were nonetheless rewarded with a great second half. He finished the season giving up just one lone run in his final 13 appearances including a streak of 11 straight scoreless outings. The question surrounding Joe Kelly for the 2017 season was a simple one; which version of Joe Kelly would the Red Sox get? The man who seemingly could not go an outing without allowing runs, or the man who almost went the entire second half without giving up any runs? The answer would be the latter.
Joe Kelly Calmly Dominated the First Half
Kelly’s 1.49 is currently sixth among all relievers in baseball who have pitched at least 20 innings (the ERA was a stunning 1.04 before he allowed the home run to the Rays in his final outing). While his other ancillary stats do not jump of the page (like his confusingly low 6.44 K/9), where he has truly made his mark this season is in the stat that matters most; team wins. When Joe Kelly appears in a game, the Red Sox tend to win. The overall mark for the Boston Red Sox when Joe Kelly appears in a game this season is 21-13. At first glance that number does not seem to be so impressive (after all, the Red Sox are currently 52-41, 11 games over .500), but after a little digging we can see the impact Kelly has had on the Sox season.
It took a while for manager John Farrell to figure out the type of weapon he had in Joe Kelly, but once he (re?) made the discovery, Kelly’s season, and the Red Sox’s, took off. On May 9th Farrell deployed Kelly in the 8th inning of an 11-7 loss to the Brewers. At that point of the year Kelly had one hold and one blown save to his name and a 2-0 record. Two days later he used Kelly in the 7th inning against the Brewers in a 1-1 tie, a game in which Kelly would throw a scoreless frame and the Red Sox would go on to win 4-1. That was the 34th game of the year for the Red Sox and their record was a middling 18-16 while their record in Joe Kelly games was a pedestrian 8-7. However, that May 11th game instilled John Farrell with a little more confidence in Joe Kelly, and the Red Sox season would benefit.
Farrell now knew how to use Kelly and Kelly would reward his skipper. Over the next 18 appearances, Kelly would appear in the 8th inning 10 times, the 7th inning seven times and the 6th inning just once. He would give up a total of zero runs over that time frame. In 16.2 innings, Kelly gave up 11 hits and walked six, but struck out 17, and most importantly for a relief pitcher, stranded four of five inherited runners. With Joe Kelly refusing to let practically anybody score when he was in the game the Red Sox went 13-5. When you look between the lines of those appearances you can also see how reliable and stress reducing Kelly had become for Farrell. In the 18 appearances, Joe Kelly recorded the final out of his inning a stunning 16 times. Once Kelly was into the game, Farrell did not need to worry about that inning any longer. Joe Kelly had turned into John Farrell’s fire man, the guy personally responsible for snuffing out any bullpen flames.
The question for the second half now becomes the same one the Red Sox had at the beginning of the season; which Joe Kelly are they going to get? Coming off of a lower body injury is always a dubious proposition for any pitcher, but even more so for one whose uptick in velocity is seemingly related to his new throwing style. Kelly was always in the upper 90s with his fastball, but with a slight alteration to his form, he is routinely pelting the ball north of 100 MPH. He used to go with a high leg kick from the stretch, but is now going with an abbreviated leg raise, almost like a slide step but not quite. The form has a little hitch to it, which has allowed Kelly to gather his entire body in his lower half and unwind like a striking rattlesnake. It gets all of his momentum going downhill and the results have been fantastic. The Red Sox expect him back at the end of July, but if they hope to maintain their lead in the AL East, and welcome back of the most important cogs to their terrific bullpen, they have to be careful. He has not gotten the majority of the accolades because Kimbrel produced one of the best first halves in relief history, but ironically Red Sox fans might finally start paying attention to how good Joe Kelly was if the bullpen and the Red Sox record suffers in his absence.