Joe Kelly has never been a great starting pitcher. In the minors, he would occasionally post some shiny ERA, but the strikeouts weren't there to make them believable against big-league competition. In the majors with the Cardinals, he split time between the bullpen and the rotation as needed, never quite making himself a permanent solution for St. Louis in either role. Now, a year after the Red Sox have acquired him, he's mostly showed why the Cardinals never entrusted him with a full-time gig in the starting five.
This isn't to say Kelly lacks talent, because that's far from the truth. He's just not being used in the role that he would be most effective in: he has enviable fastball velocity, but his secondaries lack consistency, as does his command, and expecting that to work every five days, for five-to-six innings at a time, is expecting too much.
It's the same reason the Red Sox traded Rubby De La Rosa for the more established Wade Miley. It's why they didn't even bother with Anthony Ranaudo besides a brief audition, and instead sent him packing to the Rangers for a reliever Robbie Ross. It's why, in spite of his tremendous fastball movement and quality velocity, the Sox eventually gave up on Allen Webster. Their repertoires are all a reliable pitch short, and they don't have the command to make up for it: you can dream on those guys and their stuff all day, but more often than not, the reality is far more like a nightmare.
Kelly and Rubby are both just good enough to convince you they could be better. (Photo credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)
Kelly is better than Webster and Ranaudo, and might be better than De La Rosa as well, but not so much that he should be in a big-league rotation -- especially not with a hitter-friendly park like Fenway as his home, in a difficult and offensively oriented division like the AL East. In the NL, his home park was pitcher-friendly, and he could face the pitcher instead of the designated hitter. These were not insignificant things for Kelly, as he has a career 2.82 ERA at Busch Stadium in spite of a strikeout-to-walk ratio under two there, and limited opposing pitchers to a line of .115/.138/.154 in the 46 games he's faced them in. All of this was known prior to 2015, but after seeing him pitch again as a starter this season, it's even more clear how vital those things were to his past.
He has less work in the pen in his career, but his numbers are better. The 3.25 ERA produced over 52-2/3 innings isn't much to go on, but he has struck out 8.4 batters per nine in that role, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.5 -- compare that to the 1.7 mark he's managed as a starter. It's much easier for Kelly to temporarily discard a secondary pitch that isn't working for him when he relieves, as he's only going to be on the mound for an inning or two, and that helps with both his strikeouts and his walks. As a starter, he needs to focus on making that pitch work, and if he doesn't, he'll end up taking the guesswork out of it for opposing hitters, who can then just sit fastball. Kelly's fastball has velocity, but it doesn't move enough to succeed simply by virtue of being thrown.
Kelly as a starter for the Red Sox was always a risk, but it was one worth taking until Boston managed to find someone better for the job. The initial idea was that Kelly would be the guy bumped when the Sox made an in-season trade for Cole Hamels (or whoever), but with Boston out of contention, those deals never materialized. Now, though, a new opportunity has presented itself, as the Sox can replace Kelly with either of two lefty pitching prospects: Brian Johnson or Henry Owens.
Both are expected to join the big-league rotation at some point in the near future, because these last two months of 2015 should be used to see what pitchers like Johnson and Owens can provide to the 2016 team. If they aren't going to fit into those plans directly, like with De La Rosa, Webster, and Ranaudo, they can indirectly help by being part of a trade package this winter for someone who can. It's an opportunity to showcase two pitchers who could help in the rotation one way or another, and they would be replacing a pitcher who, at this point, has likely used up his opportunities.
Plus, it's not as if the Red Sox would have no use for Kelly. Their bullpen has been a mess in 2015, and while it's not the reason they find themselves in last place and out of contention, they did their part to put them there. Koji Uehara's 2016 will possibly be his last, as he'll be 42 by the time the 2017 season rolls around and is in the final year of his deal with the Sox, anyway. Junichi Tazawa, the other anchor in the pen, is also a free agent in 2017. Robbie Ross isn't a free agent until 2019, but has only recently begun to look like the pitcher the Red Sox hoped they were acquiring, with a 2.57 ERA 2.7 K/BB over his last 15 games and 28 innings. Kelly could be a major component of the bullpen going forward, as maybe a setup man or even the closer eventually, but the Sox will need to actually use him as a reliever before they can find out if such a solution is already in their possession.
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The bullpen is going to undergo significant turnover in the next couple of years. Besides the possible exits of Uehara and Tazawa, there are also unknowns to consider such as just how much help Matt Barnes could be, if Pat Light is actually an answer in the bullpen or if his control will be a problem, if Dayan Diaz is more than just a guy who can dominate minor-league arms, if Edwin Escobar is the left they've been hoping for -- the list of questions the Red Sox need to answer is a lengthy one. Putting Kelly in the pen in 2015, as soon as they are able to line him up with Owens or Johnson, makes all kinds of sense for both the future of the rotation and the future of the pen.
Maybe it feels like a defeat, putting Kelly in the bullpen after giving up John Lackey for him, but if he can be a major component of their relief corps going forward, it'll be a whole lot easier to handle that perceived loss. Plus, Kelly isn't a free agent until 2019, so he has three seasons left to help even the score and lessen the gap between what Lackey has done for the Cardinals and what Kelly (and the forgotten Allen Craig) has done for the Red Sox.
Just how good Kelly can be out of the pen is unknown, but we do know, after 30 starts between the majors and minors in his time in the Red Sox organization, that Joe Kelly is not the starter the Red Sox want him to be. It's time to move him out of the rotation and into a new role, to give new arms a chance to succeed as starters, and improve Boston's own chances in 2016. There's still time to salvage Kelly one year later, but this first major step needs to be taken for that to happen.