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2018 in Review: Joe Kelly

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A rollercoaster year for Joe Kelly ended as well as we could have ever imagined.

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Boston Red Sox - Game Two Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

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 wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Joe Kelly.

The Season in a Sentence

Joe Kelly was good to start 2018, then mediocre-to-bad for a while before turning it on and going bananas to serve as a key piece to Boston’s October run to a championship.

The Positives

You know where I’m going to start this, yeah? Obviously, you can’t talk about Joe Kelly’s 2018 season without first discussing what an absolute monster he was in the postseason. If you recall, there was some that didn’t even want Joe Kelly on the postseason roster to begin with. I was on the fringe myself. Ultimately, he made all who doubted him look idiotic. Kelly looked like the guy we all dreamed he could be in October, pitching key inning after key inning all postseason and looking batters look silly in the process. In all, he allowed just one earned run (plus one unearned run) in 11 13 innings over nine appearances. Along with the one run he allowed eight hits, all of which were singles while striking out 13 and not walking anyone. It was that last part that was so surprising — we’ll have more on that in a bit — though if we’re being honest all of it was. Kelly was particularly amazing in the World Series when he appeared in all five games without allowing a run, giving up just four hits while striking out ten in six innings of work.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The best part of Kelly’s year was obviously October, but it’s easy to forget now that for the first couple of months of the regular season he looked like that same sort of relief ace. Okay, maybe he wasn’t quite that dominant, but he was pitching like someone ready for an important role in a good bullpen. He was awful in the first game of the year when he helped blow a lead that led to a disastrous 0-1 start, but after that he went 14 outings without allowing a run. Overall, from his second outing of the year through the end of May he was dynamite. Kelly tossed 25 23 innings in that span over 24 outings and pitched to a 0.35 ERA with 27 strikeouts and six walks. That run also, of course, included his tussle with Tyler Austin and the million of “Joe Kelly Fight Club” T-Shirts that followed.

Looking more at his season as a whole, the most encouraging part of Kelly’s season was probably his strikeout totals. Granted, given his high velocity and just general “great stuff” — I despise myself for actually saying that — one could certainly see his strikeout rate creeping higher. Still, he set down 9.3 batters per nine innings in 2018 which was the second highest mark of his career. That came with an increase on swinging strikes as well, and if Kelly is missing bats then you know he’s going well.

The strikeouts were a welcome sight for Kelly, but one thing he’s almost always been able to hang his hat on is keeping the ball in the yard. The righty does get hit hard from time to time, but generally speaking the hard contact goes for singles and doubles rather than homers. He almost always keeps a high groundball rate — he posted a 49 percent rate in 2018, per Baseball Prospectus — and this past year he allowed just four homers. It was his second straight year of a HR/9 of 0.5, and he’s had only two seasons with a HR/9 at 1.0 or above.

Finally, there are a few splits in which Kelly excelled this year, some of which is by design and some of which is probably fluky. To start, he was excellent against left-handed hitting, which was cited by the coaching staff and front office all year. The Red Sox, of course, didn’t really employ a true left-handed reliever for the majority of the year, often pointing to Kelly’s ability to handle lefties. That played out well for them, as the righty held opposite-handed hitters to a .610 OPS. The other two major splits where Kelly performed well was at home — he held opponents to a .570 OPS at Fenway — and in high-leverage spots, where he held opponents to a .602. I try to avoid getting in athletes’ heads too much, but I think with Kelly it’s fair to say atmosphere does affect him, and usually positively. I think he plays up to the home crowd, and between the high-leverage numbers and his postseason performance, I’m confident saying he’s a guy that likes the spotlight.

The Negatives

Just like it’s easy to forget how good Kelly was to start the year, it’s arguably even easier to forget how mediocre he was for the final fourth months of the regular season. To be fair, he did have some good stretches throughout this bad streak and was never really in jeopardy of being off the roster or anything, but he quickly moved down the depth chart. Matt Barnes took over the second spot on the depth chart quickly, and Kelly was eventually supplanted as the third guy as well, mostly by Ryan Brasier. Over those last four months, Kelly had just one month in which he allowed an OPS below .750 and, even worse, just one month with an ERA below 8.00. This is why he was not thought of as a shoo-in for the playoff roster heading into October, and why many were just waiting for the end of the year so he would hit free agency. Clearly, things have changed.

The biggest issue for Kelly during that stretch, and really during his entire Red Sox tenure, was the control. I mentioned that he didn’t walk anyone in October, and that was even wilder when you consider all of the walks he allowed in the regular season. He allowed a free pass to 4.4 batters per nine innings in 2018, marking his third consecutive year in which he walked at least four batters per nine. Kelly simply missed the zone too often and struggled to get batters to chase the bad pitches. If he’s truly going to take that step forward, he needs to prove he can consistently avoid those walks.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox

The Big Question

Can Joe Kelly start getting more strikeouts?

I talked about this above so I won’t go too deep now, but the short answer is yes. He got more strikeouts than in 2017 and for stretches looked like a near-dominant strikeout arm. However, like I said above, it still feels like there’s room to grow in this area. We saw it in October, but it’s yet to be seen if it can be sustained for an entire season.

The Year Ahead

Kelly is a free agent right now, and I’m fascinated to see how his market ends up developing. A performance like the one he put on in October certainly means something, and teams are always looking for underpriced relievers who can pick up big roles. I’ve certainly been bitten by doubting Kelly before, but I’m not sure I’d sign him to the three-year deal many are predicting for him. Ultimately, I think he ends up elsewhere, and while I don’t necessarily think the Red Sox will regret it too much I would not go as far as to say he certainly can’t succeed moving forward. Also, after that postseason run I would never complain about him being in a Red Sox uniform.