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Feeling better about transitioning Joe Kelly to the bullpen

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Joe Kelly has enough in common with other successful starters-turned-relievers to ease the stress about his transition.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

As someone who has long been ridiculed for talking so much about bullpens, the last month or so has been a sort of vindication for me. Anyone who has been paying attention has noticed how bad Boston’s bullpen is right now. Many are calling it the biggest area of focus for Dave Dombrowski this winter. Talking about whether or not it’s more important than retooling the rotation is picking nits.

The part that matters is the importance of rebuilding the unit.  To make matters even worse, there is virtually no help on the roster right now. Another fascinating conversation around this Red Sox team is how much stock to put into these past six weeks. As Ben alluded to the other day, playing this well can lead to dangerous actions from Dombrowski.

Both of these topics swing back to one person, and unless you skipped the headline and the photo above these words, you know I’m talking about Joe Kelly. Kelly has been something of a divisive player since coming to the Red Sox, as his stuff has enthralled many but he’s never put up the results to get everyone on board. He started the year in the rotation and, as many predicted he would, he pooped the metaphorical bed. Through his first 14 starts in 2015, he pitched to an atrocious 5.67 ERA while allowing an .756 OPS.

Then, a weird thing happened. He was demoted to Pawtucket, and after a couple rough starts upon his return to Boston, he’s been quite good. The problem, of course, is the performance doesn’t seem overly sustainable. There are some who believe he should continue to get shots in the rotation, but the prevailing opinion seems to be that it’s time for him to be transitioned into the bullpen.

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Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

Now, the cries for Kelly to be turned into a reliever are nothing new. He’s struggled as a starter, but throws very hard and, as much as it pains me to say this, he has great stuff. Even with all of those qualities, I’ve never personally been as optimistic about his chances as a reliever as many were. I’ve always figured it was worth a shot rather than continuing to throw him out there as a starter, but I’m not nearly as confident he can be a back-end reliever as a certain section of the population is. The velocity is great, but bad command is bad command regardless of what inning you’re throwing in.

With all of this going on, I thought it would be a useful exercise to compare him to some other famous starter-to-reliever conversions, and three names immediately jumped to mind. Andrew Miller was obviously the first, as his conversion came in Boston. After being a top prospect as a starter, then flaming out, he’s turned himself into one of the best left-handed relievers in all of baseball. Wade Davis is another obvious one. Viewed as little more than a throw-in in the Will Myers-for-James Shields trade, Davis may very well end up being the best player of that trio. He’s the anchor in a ridiculously talented Kansas City bullpen.

Finally, we have Zach Britton, who has gone somewhat under appreciated for being one of the best relievers in baseball this year. I figured if I looked through these names, I’d be able to find a reason why Kelly can’t make the same kind of transition. Instead, I found that they were all relatively similar.

Check out this table showing how each player performed as a starter.

Player

ERA

FIP

K/BB

K%

GB%

Joe Kelly

3.89

4.19

1.79

15.9

51.1

Andrew Miller

5.70

4.69

1.40

16.7

46.5

Wade Davis

4.57

4.49

1.88

16.1

38.2

Zach Britton

4.86

4.25

1.49

15.0

54.9

Out of all of these players, one could argue that Kelly was the best starter. While that doesn’t mean he’d be the best reliever (and considering the guys we’re talking about, he almost certainly wouldn’t be), it’s a good start. The first thing you notice is that none of these pitchers were striking batters out. Now, they’re some of the top strikeout pitchers in the game, setting down more than a batter per inning each. One thing not in the table that I’d like to point out is Davis’ former home run problems. As a starter, he was giving up 1.12 home runs per nine innings, and he’s dropped that rate to 0.29 per nine. That’s a good sign for Kelly, whose command has been his biggest flaw. After being able to rearrange his repertoire for shorter outings, Davis has almost cut home runs out of his game.

This is the biggest reason to be excited about the possibility of Kelly in the bullpen is the phenomena of relying on a smaller repertoire. We’ve all heard ad nauseam about the extent of Kelly’s pitch mix, but we’ve seen the problem with it: some of his pitches just don’t work. He’s had the most success over his career with his overpowering four seamer and his sinker. If he can cut out the breaking balls from his repertoire and just mix in the change up in there once in a while to keep hitters honest, there’s a glimmer of hope that he can turn into a useful reliever, with a ceiling of being a back-end guy near the caliber of the pitchers mentioned above.

After his recent run, there is still talk about whether or not Kelly should remain in the rotation in 2016, but we’ve already shown that his current performance isn’t very sustainable. Instead, it seems time to move him to the bullpen. Luckily for the Red Sox, he has a good amount in common with some extremely successfully starter-to-reliever conversions. It’s far from a guarantee the switch would work out for the Red Sox, but it certainly shows that the switch is worth a shot.