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Dodgers: A Closer Look at Joe Kelly

The reliever hasn’t lived up to expectations but he could still turn his season around

When the Dodgers signed 30-year-old reliever Joe Kelly to a 3-year, $25 million deal, they were expecting to get a lockdown pitcher. The results, so far, have been quite the opposite.

After struggling through most of 2018 with a 4.39 ERA and 4.39 BB/9 for the Boston Red Sox, Kelly made an adjustment before the playoffs that allowed him to throw 11.1 innings while only allowing one earned run and walking no one.

The Dodgers believed that was the new Joe Kelly and they took a chance on that upside. The plan for him was to be used in a multi-inning role where he could come in to get the biggest outs of the game.

Now, 13 games into that plan, Kelly has a 10.13 ERA and 5.01 FIP in 13.1 innings. He has single-handedly cost the Dodgers multiple wins and he has seen his K/9 drop from 9.32 to 8.78.

However, there is some hope for improvement since a lot of his problems have been in part due to bad luck.

  • His xFIP of 3.20 shows his ERA should be closer to 3.20 than 10.13.
  • His left on base percentage of 52.6% should normalize to around the major league average of 70%.
  • He will also see his home run to fly ball percentage of 37.5% drop closer to the 8% to 12% range.
  • And his BABIP should drop from .444 to around .300.

With all those regressing to where they should be, Kelly should see a significant increase in his production. But his struggles aren’t all due to bad luck. The Dodgers have tinkered with what made him good.

What’s Different?

One major change the Dodgers have made with Kelly is they are having him throw his changeup more than he ever has. He’s using it 24.1 percent of the time, which is 13.1 percent more than his career average. His changeup has also graded as his worst pitch by Fangraphs’ runs above average stat.

CHICAGO, IL – APRIL 25: Joe Kelly #17 of the Los Angeles Dodgers walks to the dugout after the eighth inning during the game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on Thursday, April 25, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

When Kelly was dominant, he was relying heavily on his high-spin curveball and fastball, then mixing in his changeup. This combo was effective at getting swinging strikes for Kelly. Now, batters are making 10 percent more contact on pitches outside of the zone and 8.3 percent more contact on pitches inside the zone. His total swinging strike rate has dropped 3.4 percent from last season.

His fastball velocity still ranks in the 98th percentile of major league pitchers and his curveball spin also ranks in the 98th percentile. He has two great pitches that are being used less in favor of a worse one.

Kelly is a case of multiple things going wrong at the same time. He has been unlucky, he hasn’t executed his pitches, and he has made a change that hasn’t worked. A lot of his numbers look worse due to his small sample of work, but it’s clear their new usage plan for Kelly hasn’t been working. Luckily for Kelly and the Dodgers, there is still hope.

Besides for having patience while waiting for his luck to turn around, the Dodgers need to let Kelly go back being a single-inning reliever who relies on his fastball and curveball combo.

When that happens, the Dodgers might have the reliever they thought they signed.

Written by Blake Williams

I graduated with an Associate's Degree in Journalism from Los Angeles Pierce College and now I'm working towards my Bachelor's at Cal State University, Northridge. I'm currently the managing editor for the Roundup News and a writer for Dodgers Nation. Around the age of 12, I fell in love with baseball and in high school, I realized my best path to working in baseball was as a writer, so that's the path I followed. I also like to bring an analytics viewpoint to my work and I'm always willing to help someone understand them since so many people have done the same for me. Thanks for reading!

10 Comments

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  1. He’s just not meant to have success in this uniform after all the things he’s done against them in different uniforms. Cut him loose and eat the contract but then again, I forgot the billionaires are hurting for cash again this year

  2. Conventional wisdom suggests keeping him as the only team he is effective against is the Dodgers. Of course there is also the IL. Maybe he can stub his pinky finger and miss a few months. Kelly’s pitching and Pollock’s non hitting probably cost them at least 8 of their losses. No matter how supposedly brilliant these new prognosticators called analytics are his ERA ( the reliable old standard for over a century) of 10.36 still tells it all. It is called snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

  3. If his change-up is his least effective pitch, who is calling for him to throw that pitch, the catcher, the manager, the front-office? Also I heard from one of the talking heads on ESPN or MLB-Network that they(Dodgers) are Not using him properly. Kelly should be pitching one inning Only, but the Dodgers are using for more. I don’t know if this is accurate(about the innings issue). Perhaps somebody out there will correct me if I’m mistaken??

  4. If Kelly is good for one inning, then he should be pitching only one inning. If Kelly has two good pitches (and the change up is not one of them), then he should be pitching those two pitches. This should be a relatively straight-forward fix. All I know is that this is not the guy I saw during the World Series and I cringe every time he walks out. With that being said, I have not completely ruled Kelly out. (Baez is a perfect example of why.) But he is going to have to get himself right so that we can rely on him, at least some of the time.

    • Barbara McP – “All I know is that this is not the guy I saw during the World Series” the proverbial eye-test. I think the Dodgers brain-trust saw what Kelly did to them(in the ’18 WS) and signed him. I’ve read Red Sox fans state on their sites that Kelly was lousy in the regular season, but “pitched-lights out in the post season.

  5. Robin- Well there you go…..when we make it to post-season, Kelly should not disappoint since he “pitches lights out in the post-season.” But waiting for that to happen will make for a long regular season if the Dodgers cannot rely on Kelly in the interim.

    • The Dodgers would probably use him wrong in the playoffs like having him pitch more than one inning or try to turn him into something he’s not like a changeup thrower for example

      • I’d just be happy if he could pitch one inning and get his era down to 5.00 which is close to his career. What were they thinking. Friedman likes to think he is the smartest man in the room. He never noticed he’s alone in that room.

  6. It’s such a pleasure to read an article that is well thought out and contains origiinal thoughts. A few years ago I would have said that’s impressive but there’s no way any outside knowls more than the professionals who see these guys every day, But now that I’ve seen how the Lakers management truly operates, I keep an open mind when an outsider has something to say.

  7. To think of Joe Kelly pitching one inning only for the amount of money he is receiving pains me greatly. Again, the FO plunked down a load of money to land Pollock and Kelly and neither has produced. Where might we go from here? If Kelly continues at this pace, we might wish to think about adding Kimbrel anytime after June 5, I believe. Of course, working against us is the way the FO and manager use relief pitchers, such as the 3 consecutive days of work given to KJ this weekend. The results were less than stellar. Poor management plus platooning may lead to fewer free agents wanting to play for the Blue!!! Go Blue Crew!!!!

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