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2017 Red Sox Review: Joe Kelly

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A look back at the year that was for Joe Kelly.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will look at the positives of their 2017, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2018. Today, we discuss Joe Kelly.

The Positives

This past season was kind of a strange one for Kelly, for whom we saw the full gamut of his game. We saw him at his best, and he’s electric when he’s really on, but we also saw him at his worst when he throws hard but with no command whatsoever. The results was a complete mixed bag of a year. On the plus side, he was tremendous at preventing runs. ERA is, generally speaking, not the best way to judge the performance of a reliever. The sample is just too small and it is too dependent on outside factors. That being said, the name of the game is still stopping runs from scoring, and Kelly was very good at that in 2017. He pitched to an outstanding 2.79 ERA over his 58 innings of work, though he did allow 41 percent of the runners he inherited to score. This, of course, does not factor into his ERA.

In addition to the simple run prevention, Kelly was better than ever at keeping the ball in the yard. As we all know, the righty is most famous for his 100+ mph fastball. Lighting up the radar gun with triple digits will always cause some excitement, but it’s also become much more commonplace in today’s game. Batters can hit it unless it’s located well and/or moves a ton. That’s been Kelly’s big problem over his career, but he was much better at inducing weaker contact in 2017. He allowed only three home runs on the season, a big reason for which is that he induced ground balls more than half the time for the first time since 2014.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Kelly had a few more positives on a micro level as well. I’ll mention his velocity as one of them, even though that might be a bit of a stretch. Velocity is helpful, even if it’s not the most important thing. All else being equal, throwing harder is better. Plus, even if Kelly’s 100+ mph fastball isn’t always effective, it’s still exciting as hell. In addition to the velocity, Kelly was extremely effective against right-handed hitters, who he held to a .191/.229/.279 slash-line. Finally, there was just the fact that, for most of the season, he was a steady presence in the bullpen. While Boston’s relief corps was a strength all year, it was something of a rotating cast of characters outside of Craig Kimbrel. Kelly was rarely the second-best reliever over the course of the season, but he was always among the most trusted.

The Negatives

There were plenty of things to be excited about with Kelly’s season, but it wasn’t all roses for the righty. First of all, he didn’t make it through the full season. It’s hard to get on a player for an injury, but even if it’s not his fault it’s still a negative for the season. He missed about a month of the season to a hamstring strain. It took him a little time to recover, too, as he pitched to an 8.59 ERA in his first eight appearances after returning from the injury and allowed a .951 OPS.

In addition to that little stretch, there were also some season-long concerns. The biggest one, and the one that has frustrated us for so long with Kelly, is his lack of strikeouts. Now, he’s not exactly Aaron Cook out there, but with how hard he throws we’ll always expect more swing-and-miss from Kelly. Instead, he struck out just over eight batters per nine innings on the season and was simply average in terms of missing bats. There were some higher hopes as he showed better strikeout stuff in his transition to the bullpen in 2016, but clearly that didn’t carry over to a full season.

Finally, there is the matter of his control. As I said near the top, Kelly has had command issues throughout his career. A large part of that has resulted in hard contact and home runs, but it’s also led to plenty of walks. While he wasn’t quite as bad in this area as he was in 2016, he still walked more than four batters per nine innings this past year. This is a rate that could be acceptable if he upped his strikeout rate by a significant amount, but if that’s not going to happen he’ll need to limit the free passes. He didn’t quite pay the price for the walks in 2017, but if he doesn’t improve he will feel it in future seasons.

The Big Question

Can Joe Kelly dominate in a full season of relief?

If you’ll recall, Kelly started 2016 as a starter but the team finally made the decision we’d all been waiting for in converting the former Cardinal to the bullpen on a full-time basis. The results were really encouraging, although they came in a smaller sample. The hope was that the shorter stints would allow him to stay that effective over a full season. While Kelly was fine and this was, all things considered, a positive year, he wasn’t the dominant force he flashed potential to be in 2016. As far as the question goes, there may still be a possibility of that in his future but at this point it looks like he’s a solid major-league reliever but not one who is going to take the next leap forward.

Looking Ahead to 2018

Kelly is entering his final arbitration-eligible season in 2018, and it would be a surprise if he was not in Boston’s bullpen again for next year. The righty should play an important role in that bullpen, though I would think in an ideal world he is something like the fourth or fifth reliever in the ‘pen. With injuries and other circumstances he is certainly good enough to bump up a notch or two in the pecking order, but he has not yet earned a major role in a major-league bullpen.