Boston’s offense was able to carry the team through the early part of the season with mediocre pitching, but that won’t last. Although Rick Porcello has been able to fulfill his promise and Steven Wright has stepped up in a big way, the rest of the rotation has lagged behind. So when Joe Kelly dazzled in his return from the disabled list, Ian York had to take a close look at the performance.
Joe Kelly has incredible raw stuff on all his pitches, and in 2015 he showed flashes of being able to harness that stuff. His results in his first two starts of 2016, though, were fairly mediocre (3 innings, 7 hits, 7 runs; 5 innings, 7 hits, 2 runs), and his third start was cut short after just 23 pitches, for what turned out to be a DL stint for a shoulder impingement.
His most recent start on May 21 against Cleveland, however, was very good, once again raising the hopes of Joe Kelly fanboys everywhere. He went 6 ⅔ innings, giving up just one hit and no runs on 104 pitches, and got the win in a 9-1 victory.
Kelly throws a standard pitch assortment: four-seam fastball (“FF”, according to PITCHf/x), two-seam fastball (“FT”), slider (“SL), changeup (“CH”), and curve (“CU”). After manually recategorizing his pitches to correct PITCHf/x errors, here is his usage this year:
Only his second and most recent games look like typical Joe Kelly performances. In his first game, he didn’t use his changeup at all, hardly threw his straight fastball, and barely mixed in his curve. His third game – just 23 pitches – consisted mainly of changeups, with very few fastballs. The “changeups” may have been attempted fastballs that didn’t reach his usual mid-90s velocity, or Kelly may have thrown them because his arm was in too much pain. In any case, the effects of his injury in that game are obvious.
His second and fourth games, though, show a much more even use of his pitches: mostly fastballs, but with a generous mix of breaking balls and changeups. In his latest game, he reserved his changeup for left-handed batters, throwing just 53.2% fastballs to lefties vs. 79% fastballs to right-handed batters:
We can look at outcomes by pitch type and location:
To righties, Kelly did an excellent job of staying away from the center of the strike zone. Even his pitches that were outside the zone were often effective. Note how many swings and misses, or fouls, he got on fastballs well above the top of the strike zone to right-handed batters.
To left-handed batters, Kelly also did a very good job of keeping his fastballs out of the center of the strike zone, instead dropping curves and changeups into the zone and keeping his fastballs on the edges. He had a 57.7% strike rate, but looking at the LHB chart especially, many of the called balls are high-quality pitches, including a number of two-seam fastballs placed almost exactly at the edge of the zone. Also, home-plate umpire Jim Joyce, who is generally a very good ball/strike caller, had a relatively small strike zone; I count five or six called balls that many umpires would have called strikes, although only one (inside the lower inside corner of the RHB strike zone) was a real mistake.
Kelly is one of the hardest throwers in baseball, with a fastball that can break 100 mph. However, since mid-2015, he seems to have been deliberately varying the speed on his fastball more. This game was no exception; Kelly threw fastballs anywhere from 91.5 to 98.2 mph.
He started relatively slow, only reaching the low- to mid-90s in the first inning, and then ramped up to the fourth and fifth inning, when he was consistently throwing over 97 mph. As we have seen before, however, along with the increased velocity came a reduction in command: He walked three batters, along with two strikeouts, before getting Chris Gimenez to ground weakly back to the pitcher and getting the forceout at home.
By the sixth inning, Kelly was showing clear signs of tiring, with his fastball velocity starting to drop, and by the seventh his velocity was back down to a relatively slow 94 to 97 mph range. Given that this was his first major league start after a DL visit, and that his pitch count was over 100, it was not surprising to see him fading at this point.
While we can’t expect a one-hitter every time Kelly starts, this start may be showing us the pitcher Kelly is becoming. Instead of relying on throwing his blazing fastballs, with their tremendous natural movement, as hard as he can, he is mixing pitch types and velocities, placing his pitches much better, and fooling batters as much as overpowering them. The fifth inning from this start reminds us that he still doesn’t have the consistency throughout a game that a true ace would have, and that he can fall back into bad habits and resort to maximum velocity when in trouble. Nevertheless, this Joe Kelly is likely to be a good pitcher, and occasionally an excellent one.
Ian York uses the PITCHf/x to monitor the strike zone, highlights great performances, monitors league-wide trends and tracks the performances of some interesting young hitters.
Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.
All data compiled from PITCHf/x and Baseball-Reference.com.