Joe Kelly has the velocity and movement to excel as a starting pitcher. However, the results have not been there. The Red Sox hope that as the trust develops between Joe Kelly and Carl Willis, he will reach his potential.
When Carl Willis joined the Red Sox coaching staff as their new pitching coach, he said that one of the things he would stress would be fastball command to all quadrants of the strike zone. As you can see with the nice donut Joe Kelly had in his game against Seattle on Friday, May 15th he appears to be buying into this concept. This is where we have the usual “Small Sample Size” warning!
There were still a few pitches in the middle of the zone, but not as many as in the game on May 9th against Toronto. He was also much more effective in the upper half of the zone in this outing. In the previous game, the hitters only had to look for balls that they could handle in the middle and lower half of the strike zone. Keeping the hitters guessing also helped Kelly induce 14 ground balls to just three flies in this game. In his two previous games, the ratio was closer to 50:50 (7-7 in the Toronto game and 6-5 in the Yankees game). You can’t be an effective ground ball pitcher with ratios like that.
I broke the strike zone into quadrants in order to see how well Kelly utilized the entire zone. On Thursday, he threw 10 pitches in the upper right quadrant, 15 in the lower right, 14 in the upper left quadrant and 9 to the lower left. In the previous game, Kelly threw 11 to the upper right quadrant, 12 to the lower right, 5 to the upper left and 16 to the lower left. You can see in the graphic below from the Toronto game that there is a huge hole in the upper left quadrant and a fairly large hole in the upper right quadrant as well:
You can see in this graphic from Ian York how Kelly attacked lefthanded and righthanded hitters against Seattle. The strike zone in this graphic is the de facto zone called by umpires, not the zone mandated in the rule book:
As I was watching the game, it looked like his motion was smoother than it had been in the recent past and his command and control also looked better. The better command and control was confirmed when I was able to look at the strike zone plots from Brooks Baseball posted above. Here is video from Friday and from his 4/27 start against Toronto:
An easier and more fluid motion, even though it usually means a bit less in the way of velocity, usually helps the pitcher with his command and control and it certainly looked like this was the case on Thursday night.
Because Kelly throws harder than almost any pitcher (as of the start of play on May 19th Kelly had the highest fastball velocity of all qualified starters at 96.0 mph) and has great movement on his pitches, he can afford to sacrifice a couple of miles per hour for better control. This is all part of the learning process that turns a thrower into a pitcher. After all, it doesn’t do any good to throw 98 or 99 mph if you have no idea where the ball will end up.
On the television broadcast, Orsillo and Lyons mentioned a couple of things that Willis had said regarding Kelly. The first was that this was the first game that he would see him pitching live and the first real chance he would have to evaluate his mechanics. Until Thursday, he had only watched him on video and in his side session in the bullpen. They also mentioned that Willis thought Kelly needed to cut a few MPH off of his fastball because when he threw with maximum effort it messed up his mechanics and he lost command of his pitches. This is in addition to stressing that Kelly needed to emphasize his fastball to all quadrants of the zone.
On Thursday, he still reached 99mph a few times, but considerably fewer than he had against Toronto. Obviously, the results were much different as well. None of this means that Kelly has been “fixed.” All it means is that he had a really good outing against a team that ranks 24th in runs scored in MLB. One thing that will take time to develop will be the trust between Willis and the pitching staff. Trust will develop quickly if Kelly keeps seeing these kinds of results.