Tank Talks Sox: Joe Kelly is finally good

On the occasion of his 29th birthday, we aren't afraid to say it

David Tanklefsky
June 09, 2017 - 1:29 pm

Perhaps no Red Sox pitcher in recent years has been as confoundingly frustrating as one Joseph William Kelly. For someone whose fastball is so astonishingly fast it has inspired think pieces about if the pitcher's mound should be moved back, he has had uneven results that belie his natural gifts.

After a shaky first year and a half with the Sox, Kelly bottomed out as a starter last year, posting an ERA of 8.46 in six starts and getting sent down to Triple-A after a disastrous outing against Baltimore in which he allowed seven earned runs in 2.1 innings. Many fans probably thought there he would languish, like the other hapless holdover from the 2014 John Lackey trade, Allen Craig.

Yet Kelly re-emerged as a reliever and came back to post a promising 0.64 ERA in September of last year, with three walks and 20 strikeouts in 14 innings. It has carried over in a big way.

Today, Kelly has been re-born as one of the American League's best non-closer relief pitchers. It's Ok to admit it: Joe Kelly is now good. He hasn't allowed a run in his last 13 appearances and has posted a 1.42 ERA and a 1.105 WHIP. Both would be career highs.

Kelly has been superb behind dominant Craig Kimbrel. In the Kelly/Kimbrel tandem, Boston is one of just two teams in the American League with two relievers who have ERAs below 1.50 (minimum 20 innings pitched). 

You can't really talk about either of those two without talking about overpowering stuff. Kelly always threw consistently in the mid-90s as a starter, but as a reliever he's been able to rear back to another level. Kelly's average two-seam fastball speed is 98.9 miles per hour, second only to his former St. Louis teammate Trevor Rosenthal this year. 

Then there was the Pitch Heard 'Round the World. On Tuesday night in the Bronx, Kelly uncorked a 2-2 fastball to Yankees minotaur Aaron Judge that clocked in at 104 miles per hour on the NESN telecast. It officially registered at 102.2 miles per hour according to pitch f/x, tying Kelly with himself for fastest pitch thrown this year. Judge somehow fouled it off. Even in a high-velocity environment, Kelly is burning up the radar gun.

(Quick sidenote: Kelly also seems like a pretty laid back dude for someone who could kill you in an instant with his right arm. I follow his wife on Instagram [because I am a complete weirdo] and they are adorable together. Also, if you ever want to see Joe Kelly do things like iron in his underwear, you can see that there too. I don't know why you would, but it's available to you).

While Kimbrel has become less predictable in his pitch selection this year, Kelly has consolidated his arsenal to focus on what he does best: throwing insane heat. 

After reducing his sinker frequency in recent years, he's basically ditched it this year and increased his fastball and slider usage. The fastball is up 18% (from 47 to 65) against lefties and up six percent (53 to 59) against righties. Righties in particular are flailing against Kelly at .141/.191/.172. Combined, opposing righties are hitting .087 in 126 at bats against Kelly and Kimbrel. Thanks in large part to those two, the Red Sox are the best relief corps in baseball against righties after the sixth inning, with a weighted on base average (wOBA) of .231.

Still, manager John Farrell has been sometimes reluctant to use Kelly as the default eighth inning set up man. If there's a flaw in Kelly's pitching right now, it's that lefties are still hitting him pretty well (.320/.469/.360).

So far this year, both Matt Barnes and Robby Scott have been brought into the eighth more often than Kelly and both have been better against lefties than Kelly. 

But overall, Kelly's new-found consistency has been key for a bullpen that's ranked third in the league in ERA and second in left-on-base percentage despite not having Tyler Thornburg or Carson Smith, both men who were expected to slot into late inning roles just before Kimbrel.

Happy Birthday Joe. You're finally good.

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