We all remember when people feared Joe Kelly coming into the game. Some called it a ‘bad signing’ after a month while others kept faith in his elite stuff and his track record. The people in the latter group were rewarded for their patience while the others were made believers — for good reason.
Those who placed the blame for early season bullpen struggles solely on the shoulders of Kelly were justified in doing so. I will admit that I was guilty of it, too. However, Joe Kelly is now who the Dodgers envisioned when they rewarded him with a sizable pay day and who fans want on the mound when it matters most.
Return on Investment
The 31-year-old Kelly who signed a three-year, $25 million deal with the Dodgers this off-season has more than proven to be worth it.
To take a closer look at the contract structure, Kelly is receiving just $3 million in 2019. This enabled the Dodgers to remain under the luxury tax threshold this season and in return, they rewarded Kelly with a potentially four-year deal with a club option for $12.5 million in the fourth season. In 2020 and 2021, Kelly is guaranteed $8.5 million each season, so he will be a lock in Dodger blue until 2021. As previously mentioned, the $12.5 million club option in 2022 comes with a $4 million buyout, but there is a reason why it is in the contract language in the first place.
Kelly’s pact to be in Los Angeles was one that Andrew Friedman championed because they believe in his skillset. The lofty club option is in place to pay closer money to Kelly should he become worthy of the role. For reference, current closer Kenley Jansen is a free agent after the 2021 season, should he decide to exercise his player option after this season (he will).
The Closer Dilemna
For someone who was so despised to begin the season, numerous fans are now clamoring for Kelly to take over the closer role from the incumbent Kenley Jansen. The 31-year-old Jansen’s well-documented struggles have virtually turned Joe Kelly into a fan favorite. You love to see it.
Among pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched, Joe Kelly has the 41st best DRA- in baseball.
According to PWARP, Baseball Prospectus’ version of pitcher WAR, Joe Kelly has provided 0.01 more WARP than Kenley Jansen this year.
— Future Dodgers (@FutureDodgers) August 12, 2019
While you may want him to close, closing is overrated. Deploying Kelly in the most high-leverage spots along with 23-year-old Julio Urías is the way to go, not restricting Kelly to the prison that is the ninth inning.
Changes in Pitch Usage
Kelly’s early season struggles can be largely attributed to a lack of control due to some faults in his pitch mix. This chart shows the changes in repertoire, courtesy of Baseball Savant:
Kelly has dramatically decreased the usage of his four-seam fastball, a pitch that was as straight as an arrow in April and early May. Now, with an uptick in two-seamer usage, Kelly has racked up the strikeouts and his stuff has improved dramatically as a result. He has simply relearned how to pitch with what he has in his arsenal.
By the Numbers
Joe Kelly has put in work to get his ERA all the way down to 4.73. His DRA also sits at a pleasant 3.08. Simply put, he is a really good pitcher and has been for most of the season in hindsight.
From the start of the season until he changed his usage rates up, Kelly posted a dreadful 7.79 ERA. The peripherals did not look much better as over that span, he also held just a 21.0 K% and generated a minuscule 7.8% swinging strike rate. Since then, however, Kelly holds a 2.28 ERA, an elite 34.0 K%, and a fantastic 13.0% swinging strike rate. The latter demonstrates who he is and who he should be while under contract.
In addition, the Dodgers simply mishandled him to begin the year. They tried to squeeze blood out of a turnip by trying to deploy Kelly as a multi-inning reliever. In games that Kelly has faced more than five batters, he holds a 5.34 ERA. This can partially be attributed to poor performance, but it is still telling.
The Dodgers see Joe Kelly potentially being their closer in 2022 — just look at his contract structure. They have faith in him and we should too. Friedman never breaks the bank for relievers, but there is a reason he paid Kelly as much as he did.
He figures to be a formidable force in October with his arsenal in line and his confidence through the roof. It is never too late to join the Joe Kelly Fan Club.
JOE KELLY FIRES ANOTHER LOCKDOWN INNING, HE IS HEATING UP. ALL ABOARD, THIS IS IT. pic.twitter.com/l4wRNewOZj
— scott geirman (@Scotty_Gee) June 26, 2019