When the trade that sent John Lackey to the St. Louis Cardinals was made, most people weren’t sure what to think. In general, people liked Allen Craig but had nothing to think of for Joe Kelly. Granted, fans expected someone like Shelby Miller and his 5 IP-per-start average or Michael Wacha and his hurt shoulder (which should’ve scared you anyway, but I digress). But instead, the Red Sox received Kelly, a pitcher not noted on any prospect lists but with a penchant for keeping the ball in the yard. Was the fanbase a little disappointed? Sure. But should they be? Not at all.
Let’s start with some pitcher type basics.
What’s great about groundball pitchers is that they work in any park. The same can’t be said for flyball guys like Jake Peavy, who gave up homers at such a rate that even Sox beat writers had a “Obligatory Peavy Homer” joke that lasted throughout his 2014 tenure in Boston. Grounders are how Lackey got back into business in 2013 – a huge uptick in grounders from his cutter and his two-seam fastballs aided him immensely in his comeback tour that year.
Kelly has been able to make 52% of all contact grounders. As long as your defense is good – and Boston’s is – you’re going to stymie any hard contact and offense. Oh, and over his major league career, he’s allowed 451 grounders to 233 fly balls. Just about double the amount. That’s quite good. That’s even better in a park that 1. can’t exactly hold fly balls and 2. hosts a team that is superb at defense.
Keep the ball on the ground, and you won’t give up home runs either. Kelly has a track record of low HR/9 rates throughout the minors – he even has a 0.25(!!!) mark in 72 innings at Triple-A Memphis. Along with the grounders, the lack of dingers against him is making Kelly look more and more like a pitcher that Boston could utilize to great lengths in Fenway Park.
Now, what we have to understand is that Kelly is still a project. Obviously, he wasn’t the best pitcher in the Cards’ system and no one should think that way. And despite the prolific amount of grounders, Kelly wasn’t blowing away the league. That largely steams from his two-seam fastball-heavy pitch selection. He was hurling that two-seamer at 67.8% rate. Not sure about you guys, but if a starting pitcher threw the same thing sixty-eight percent of the time, I’d know what to look for.
Thankfully, John Farrell took notice, and had Kelly & Christian Vazquez work on using his full repertoire, which includes a slider, curveball and changeup to go along with that two-seamer. How did that work out for him on Wednesday?
Beautiful. That’s how you shut down an offense – pitches low in the zone, get grounders, and have your defense do its thing.
See, improvements like that imply that some good progression will come to Joe Kelly. Let’s say that, with the use of four grounder-prone pitches over the next couple years, he progresses with a full 1.00 point career improvement in K/9 and a 0.50 career improvement in BB/9. HR/9 stays relatively the same because, y’know, grounders. Here’s how the career numbers look after that:
|New & Improved Joe Kelly||6.97||2.60||0.78||54.5%|
Well, ain’t that something. For what it’s worth, Kelly throws his two-seamer at an average speed of 94.5 miles per hour too. That is some delicious, roughly-3.50 FIP pitching right there. I would want that as my #3 or #4 starter any day of the week.
What’s even better is Kelly’s cost control. A big deal was made about Lackey’s $500K salary next year, but Kelly isn’t even a free agent until 2019. He’s gonna get paid $500K for the next year as well. Arbitration isn’t an issue until 2016. Less money, less problems? Let’s hope so.
The Red Sox traded John Lackey for an outfielder and a pitcher who has a good chance of producing the same exact stats that Lackey did. That pitcher is also ten years younger and won’t be touching free agency soon. Also, he’s projectable, cheap, and won’t take much work to make him better. As a fan, Joe Kelly might not be what you wanted, but trust me, he’s got what you need.