Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sox Should Stick Kelly in Pen

Kelly's overstayed his welcome in Boston's starting rotation (Fox Sports)
How many beatings does poor Joe Kelly have to take before the Red Sox realize he is, in fact, not cut out to be a major league starting pitcher. How long before they realize what the rest of the baseball world has known all along; that his live-wire arm is better suited for the bullpen than the rotation?

Because right now, at least, it's obvious that Kelly has no place in John Farrell's stable. He was roughed up last night, surrendering eight hits and five runs as he failed to make it through the fourth. The beating inflated his ERA to 5.67--fifth-worst in the majors among qualified starting pitchers--while his WHIP ballooned to 1.50 (eighth-worst).

After a promising April in which Kelly averaged over a strikeout per inning and managed a 3.5 K/BB ratio, he's reverted into the mediocre starting pitcher he was prior to this year. Since May 1st, Kelly has made 10 starts, of which the Red Sox have won only two. His earned runs have exceeded his strikeouts during that stretch, a period in which he's struck out more than three batters in a start twice. Meanwhile, his K/BB ratio has been an ugly 32/23.

Expand the sample size a little further--to include his last dozen starts--and the numbers look even worse. He has a 6.39 ERA over that span, getting raked to the tune of an .813 OPS. For every decent start Kelly makes, he has a clunker like last night's, failing to display the consistency one would hope to see from a major league starter.

With their season already doomed, the Red Sox appear to be sticking with Kelly for two reasons. One is a clear lack of superior alternatives. The other is Kelly's tantalizing velocity, which thus far has produced the fourth-highest average fastball speed among starters. When a pitcher throws that hard and is able to sustain it throughout the course of a start (Kelly was still throwing darts when Farrell yanked him yesterday), it's hard not to be seduced by the possibility that he'll blossom into the next Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer.

Therein lies the problem. Kelly's struggles have nothing to do with velocity but everything to do with how he attacks hitters. He's the epitome of a "thrower," lacking the command and secondary pitches needed to make his heat effective. Kelly knows this, as his curveball and slider have both been mediocre pitches, which causes him to rely on his gas. But with over 70 percent of his pitches coming in as fastballs, he's not fooling anybody. Batters are looking dead-red and punishing him for it.

Anyone can come out and blow away three batters in an inning, but it takes a tactician to survive several trips through a major league lineup. Everyone can hit the fastball, otherwise they wouldn't be in the Show. Navigating your way through a batting order is less about velocity and more about location, deception, and pitch-sequencing. How do you think Mark Buehrle won over 200 games, or Tim Wakefield lasted nearly two decades?

At 27 Kelly still has time to figure it out. Maybe like Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling he will be a late-bloomer. With their season sunk, the Red Sox can afford to give him more time this year. But what about next year, when they'll be trying to contend? Boston, and Kelly, won't have that same luxury.

Another way Boston could try to salvage this situation would be to put him in the bullpen and hope for the best. If he thrives there like Andrew Miller did, then they'll have a nice bargaining chip at the trade deadline. If he struggles, then he can rejoin the rotation and try his hand at starting again. Either way, it seems clear that a change is in the best interests of both parties. Kelly can't continue to be pounded like this. He could really use some relief.

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