Joe Kelly‘s prediction that he would win the Cy Young award this season isn’t looking like it will come to fruition. Unless of course he meant that he would win an award for being the best pitcher in the Boston Red Sox rotation, in which case he’s currently in a five-way tie for last place. So he still has a chance to make that happen, but in order for Kelly to improve upon his bloated 5.72 ERA, he will need to improve his pitch selection.
It’s often cited that Kelly has the best pure stuff on the Red Sox staff, which is at least in part due to the velocity on his fastball. Kelly’s four-seam fastball averages a major league best 96.4 MPH and he’s capable of dialing it up to 99 MPH. Many hitters simply don’t have the bat speed to catch up to that type of heat, which forces them to attempt to foul it off and wait for Kelly to make a mistake with another pitch.
The problem is that instead of overpowering hitters with his best pitch, Kelly has become too reliant on his inferior two-seam fastball. This season he has thrown the two-seamer 38.5% of the time, making it his most frequently used pitch type, according to PITCHf/x data collected by FanGraphs. Unfortunately that pitch hasn’t been nearly as successful. Opposing hitters are batting .268 this season against Kelly’s two-seam fastball, compared to .241 against his four-seamer, while he also has a higher walk percentage with his two-seamer.
Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling discussed Kelly’s struggles with his two-seam fastball during ESPN’s broadcast on Sunday night. While most pitchers throw this pitch with some sinking action to induce ground balls, Kelly’s two-seamer showed a tendency to move sideways. Not quite like a cutter, but more like a slider that doesn’t slide quite enough. The result was that when Kelly attacked left-handed hitters inside, the ball would drift out over the plate. Instead of getting the ball in on the batter’s hands to induce weak contact, the ball ended up lining up with the barrel of the bat where hitters have been able to smash it.
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Kelly’s struggles can be linked to his inability to locate with his two-seam fastball. He can get away with some mistakes with his four-seamer because of it’s overwhelming velocity, but he sacrifices some speed on the two-seamer, which has an average velocity that dips to 95.7 MPH.
To his credit, Kelly recognizes the issues he is having controlling his fastball. While the two-seam fastball remains his most frequently used pitch, he is using it far less than the 60.2% that he has averaged in his career. That’s a start, but he still needs to work on controlling the pitch when he does need it.
"“I’m missing my fastball command,” Kelly told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan after his start on Sunday. “I throw one good one, but another time it’s leaking out over the middle.“It’s something I’m going to go out and work on. If it means going into my next start and throwing 10 off-speed pitches in a row, I’m going to do it. I live and die with my fastball, but that’s something I’m not commanding right now.”"
Nobody is suggesting he abandon the fastball, but he does need to work on finding his control with it. In the meantime he should rely more on the four-seam fastball, while working in more of his off-speed pitches.
Kelly has the talent to bounce back and be an effective pitcher for the Red Sox. He will need to find his control before he can find that success, but cutting back on the pitch that has been one of the least effective ones in his arsenal would go a long way toward deflating his ERA.