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Potential offseason target: Joe Kelly

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A fan favorite who fills a need usually seems like a good idea.

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

Earlier today Bob talked about the progression of Garrett Whitlock and why it would be a good idea to start moving him towards a starter’s role to increase his own individual value. While I don’t disagree with the premise myself, that would also certainly take away from where the Boston Red Sox currently stand in their bullpen and create a big hole compared to the 2021 roster. Without Whitlock, their current late-inning situation would be a combination of Matt Barnes, Josh Taylor, and, um, Ryan Brasier? Hirokazu Sawamura? Darwinzon Hernandez? It’s not ideal.

So although many of us would agree that Whitlock is good enough that the team should be working to get him in the most valuable role possible, there clearly needs to be some additions in the bullpen when the lockout is lifted as well. We’ve talked plenty during this dead period about the relative lack of talent on the reliever market this winter, but there are some solid second- and third-tier kind of players on the market. That would seem to add up to the potential of going with a quantity over quality approach on the market, say signing three of those solid players in the absence of being able to sign one very good one. And that, in turn, lends itself to perhaps signing a solid option who happens to be a former fan favorite in Joe Kelly.

Kelly, who first came to Boston as part of the trade return for John Lackey during the 2014 season, had a total rollercoaster of a career with the Red Sox. Acquired as a young starter with impressive stuff that needed to be harnessed, he was never quite able to do it in that role. It seemed clear for some time that he should be pitching in relief, but he wasn’t converted to that role full-time until 2017. He’d then become one of their most-used relievers over the next two seasons, including playing a big role for the 2018 team that would eventually become the most successful in team history. It was that performance, as well as his key role in a fight against the New York Yankees pictured above, that made him a folk hero in Boston.

Despite that, he was one of the few players not to be brought back from that team, instead signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, with whom he has spent the last few years. Considering the time difference, a lot of us don’t keep up with the west coast teams as much as we’d perhaps like, so it would make sense if we’re not quite aware of what Joe Kelly has turned into since leaving Boston. Over the last two seasons, what he’s been is phenomenal based on both results and peripherals. After adjusting for park effects, since the start of the 2020 season he’s been 42 percent better than league-average by ERA and 27 percent better by FIP, aka his peripherals.

Last season in particular was an impressive one for Kelly right before he hit the open market again as a free agent. Appearing in 48 games and tossing 44 innings for the Dodgers, the veteran pitched to a 2.86 ERA with a 3.08 FIP, striking out 27.5 percent of his opponents while walking just eight percent. That last part is particularly striking as a Red Sox fan, as Kelly posted a double-digit walk rate in three of his four seasons in Boston. But thanks to a new approach on the mound, he’s hit the zone more often and been more effective on the pitches on which he’s inducing chases.

Really, this change is mostly around his pitch usage, which is totally different than when we last saw him in Boston. In that aforementioned 2018 season, which was uneven in the regular season before he dominated in the postseason, Kelly worked mostly off his high-velocity four-seam fastball, which he peppered in the upper portions of the zone. He threw that heater about half of the time, with a few other secondaries sprinkled in behind it. Contrast that with his approach in 2021 with the Dodgers, a year in which he led off with his curveball being thrown 43 percent of the time. And on top of that, he’s mostly ditched the four-seam, instead working with a sinker down in the zone along with his changeup as his third pitch.

The results after the change speak for themselves. Although Kelly’s fastball was overpowering when located correctly, Red Sox fans probably remember the location was not always consistent. Too often it was left over the plate, and it was a flat enough pitch that it was usually crushed despite the velocity. Now, he’s working with a sinker that has induced much weaker contact than the four-seam fastball did. Since the sinker has become a regular part of his arsenal three seasons ago, Kelly’s allowed just one homer served up by the offering.

Championship Series - Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The walk rate last year is great, but that doesn’t seem to be the main benefit from this new approach by the now-33-year-old (he’ll be 34 in June). Instead, it seems to be about the contact he’s allowing. With the Red Sox, Kelly was something of a ground ball pitcher, but it wasn’t to any extreme extent. With the Dodgers, though, it has been a bit more extreme. In fact, among 363 pitchers who tossed at least 100 innings since the start of the 2019 season, only five had a higher ground ball rate than Kelly’s 60 percent rate. That, in turn, has allowed him to keep the ball in the yard despite playing in a good home run hitting park in L.A.

That’s all good in a vacuum, but the Red Sox do not play in a vacuum and instead pitch in front of what on paper would appear to be on the worst defensive infields in baseball. It’s something we talked about with another potential relief target in Lou Trivino, but I do think things are a little bit different here. For the most part, it comes down to the stuff. While Joe Kelly’s “great stuff” became a meme because of how often it was trotted out, he does miss more bats than Trivino, and this new style he developed with the Dodgers actually led to more. After never reaching a strikeout rate of 27 percent with Boston, he’s done so twice in the last three seasons with the Dodgers.

There are a lot of relievers in this tier in which Kelly resides that could be available, whether it be on the free agent market or via trade, but this could be a reasonable path for the front office to take. FanGraphs readers predicted a two-year, $14 million deal for the righty, and while I probably wouldn’t want to go too much higher than that (particularly in terms of years) it’s a reasonable contract for a pitcher who has reinvented himself since leaving Boston. He helps at a position of need, even if he doesn’t complete the bullpen building on his own, and has the added benefit of being a fan favorite in Boston. Assuming the market doesn’t explode unexpectedly, this seems like a move that makes a lot of sense for the Red Sox from where I sit.