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.
Fasten your seatbelts for the Joe Kelly Experience.
— Dodgers Nation (@DodgersNation) May 5, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 for him.
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.
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