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Looking way too closely at Joe Kelly's first start

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Can we learn anything from Joe Kelly's first three innings of the year?

Boston Red Sox v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The cool thing about the beginning of the season is the fact that there are baseball games to watch. It’s awesome! The uncool thing about the beginning of the season is that not much has happened yet. The uncool thing about not much happening is that there isn’t much to talk about, or much of anything with substance, that is. This is how we get to the point of me sitting down to write way too many words about one Joe Kelly start. Obviously, we can’t learn a whole lot from one outing, but there were some interesting things going on in this game, so let’s just do this I guess.

If you didn’t watch the game on Friday, it was not a pretty one for Kelly. He only lasted three innings in Toronto, allowing seven runs on seven hits (including one home run) and three walks to four strikeouts. So…yeah. Not great, Bob.

As we all know, this is a big year for Kelly. There’s still that hope — as elusive and frustratingly far away at time as it may be — that he can stick in a major-league rotation, and maybe even be above-average in that role. Still, he’s never shown a consistent ability over his career, and with this being his age-28 season, the leash has to be shortening at some point. If he’s going to remain a major-league starter, Kelly is going to need to pitch well in the first part of year. This outing against the Blue Jays was not a good start. Of course, it should be noted that, again, we’re talking about one start against the best lineup the league has to offer. We’re still gonna dive a little deeper into a few Pitch F/X numbers, though.

We’ll start with his repertoire, because it’s impossible to talk about Joe Kelly without talking about his stuff. For his entire Red Sox career, there’s been so much talk about his expansive repertoire, but he’s turned into a sinker baller who shies away from his secondaries. So, I was interested to see how we approached his first game of the year. To start with, he still leaned heavily on the sinker, throwing it about 44 percent of the time. That’s not what I want to focus on, though. Instead, there are two pitches that stood out for me in this outing. The first was his slider, a pitch he threw just 14 percent of the time in 2015 and 19 percent of the time during his hot stretch at the end of the year. In his outing on Friday night, he tossed the pitch 25 times, making 31 percent of his total. It was a solid pitch for him on the night, too. Although he did allow the home run on a slider, he also induced whiffs on seven of them, good for about 54 percent of the swings on breaking ball. Anecdotally speaking, it looked good on several occasions, including one at bat in which he made Jose Bautista look silly. That’s not an easy thing to do. Here’s hoping he can continue to work this pitch into his repertoire.

On the other side of things, Kelly didn’t use his changeup once. It’s never been a pitch he’s leaned on, but it’s still disheartening that he ditched it for an entire outing, albeit a shortened one. A few weeks ago, I wrote about this pitch and how it could be a weapon for him in his quest to prove himself as a starting pitcher. He even had a discussion with Brian MacPherson about using his changeup more, which makes it even weirder that he didn’t use it at all. Here’s hoping he works it in his next time out.

Besides the repertoire, there looked to be some changes in Kelly’s release point from his hot stretch last season and his start on Friday. Now, these aren't massive differences, but it definitely looks like an issue to me. You can see for yourself in the graphs from Brooks Baseball, but his arm slot got a little lower, and he it appears he moved a little bit on the rubber, while also not fully extending his arm.

Again, this isn’t a huge change, but it can make a difference. Looking at some actual images of him throwing, this doesn’t look like something that’s being done intentionally. Compare, for example, a pitch from his first at bat on Friday to a pitch from August 14 of last year — his best start of the 2015 season.

It’s not entirely clear from the pictures (because I am bad at computering), but Kelly was getting way more extension in the start last year. This, in turn, gets him on top of the ball more, allowing for more movement and, more importantly, more pitches down in the zone.

Which brings us to our last point, one that should sound very familiar to those that have followed Kelly at all. His command was…not great on Friday. It’s not an uncommon problem, but again we’ll compare him to his second-half performance last year. The hope was that he’d be able to carry everything over into a new season, but it didn’t happen in Toronto.

It’s pretty simple, here. He was too far up in the zone. Most major-league lineups will kill you if you can’t keep the ball down, but that goes doubly for the Blue Jays. Whether it was the lack of extension he was getting on his pitches or something else, it needs to be fixed.

It’s worth noting for the 500th time in this post that this is only one game and three innings of work we’re talking about. It’s not time to draw any real conclusions yet. With that being said, many of us (myself included) are skeptical of Kelly in the rotation. Friday’s start, small sample and all, did nothing to help that. He’ll still get a few more chances to prove himself, as he should, but he needs to do better. Maybe that means working in his changeup more, or getting more extension in his windup. What it most certainly means is Kelly needs more command, and better results.