A fastball has five outcomes. A strike, a ball, a hit, a foul or an out.
As Brandon Belt stood in the left-handed batters box in the top of the sixth inning on Monday night, waiting and watching for one of those fastballs whose outcome had not yet been decided, Joe Kelly stood on the mound hoping to decide it for him.
The count was clean, 0-0. The Dodgers’ starter Julio Urias, who had dominated the Giants through the first five innings had been replaced. Kelly the reliever brought in to prove his disastrous first appearance was no more than a distant memory.
Kelly wound up, kicked his leg and delivered a 97 mph fastball. Belt did not miss, smacking the pitch up in the air towards center field. 402 feet later, it landed.
Kelly was left on the mound to watch Belt’s trot around the base paths. His fifth earned run of the season was to score with no play at the plate.
It did not give the Giants the lead. The score was 2-1 Dodgers in the opening contest between two arch-rivals. But, what Belt’s home run did not give San Francisco in the lead, it gave them in momentum.
Kelly surrendered three more runs that night. It was his second appearance of the year in which he gave up a four-spot and the second appearance in which he was directly involved in his team’s loss.
On Monday, his name was in the loss column, on March 29th he earned a blown save.
So, through two disastrous games and an 18.00 ERA to show for them, Joe Kelly’s transition from the Red Sox to the Dodgers has hardly painted him in a heroic light. But, with the numbers, the 30-year-old flamethrower is not nearly a lost cause.
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Kelly’s stuff plays.
His fastball sits between 97 and 100 miles per hour and he compliments that with a power curveball in the mid-80’s.
His ability to throw strikes is sometimes too good, as he gives batters something to hit. But, fundamentally speaking, Kelly is what you want in a flamethrower: an over-powering pitcher who isn’t afraid to make batters try and beat them.
Though the issues with Kelly are obvious and recognizable (he was in the ninth percentile in exit velocity and 27th percentile in hard-hit percentage), the underlying foundation for extreme success is equally there.
Let’s brand Kelly as buckets of paint.
With paint, you have a variety of colors to choose from and options for the things you can paint. But, in buckets of paint, there is no artwork, just the foundation for it.
With buckets of paint, artwork can be made, it’s just not done yet
Joe Kelly’s pitches are much in the same. They are unfinished artworks simply waiting to be painted.
In 2018, Kelly was in the top 1 percent of major league baseball in curveball spin rate and fastball velocity: his stuff was mathematically amazing the question was just left at what he was doing with it.
The answer to the “what was he doing with it” question is less promising than the spin rates and velocities. Kelly was leaving the ball over the plate. His meatball percentage (it’s a great name that means exactly what you think it does) was at 8.0 percent and batters were making contact with pitches both in an out of the zone.
Comparably, Joe Kelly’s pitches performed at rates similar to Lance Lynn and Andrew Chafin.
But, in those foundational stats, spin rate and velocity, the argument stands that Kelly has the stuff to perform. He simply needs to find a way to use his pitches positively.
These early season struggles feel very 2018 Kenley Jansen-esque.
It’s not that the two are in the same conversation when it comes to caliber. But, theoretically speaking, the concerns for Jansen were short term with most everyone knowing his stuff would play against major league hitting.
The same longterm confidence should be applied to Kelly.
Joe Kelly is foundationally a great pitcher. The Dodgers are simply trying to get him to consistently use that arsenal, or bucket of paint, to paint a picture far more beautiful than he has been lately. For now, though, Kelly needs to just keep painting and the success should come.