Red Sox Joe Kelly A Starter Or A Closer?


The Boston Red Sox are faced with yet another dilemma, this season. Closer Koji Uehara is out with a fractured wrist, leaving the closer position vacant. There are a number of candidates on the Red Sox pitching staff, but nobody is saying that any of them are obvious choices. Well, except Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe. He believes that Joe Kelly should be the clear winner for the position.

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Today, Cafardo elaborates in his article: “Who doesn’t think that Joe Kelly should be tried as the team’s closer in Koji Uehara’s absence? Kelly has closer velocity (97 miles per hour), closer stuff, and has struggled as a starter. He was a closer in college. His stuff gets worse a couple of times through the lineup.”

Before we continue, let’s exorcise the baseball cliche demons first. Could we please stop saying traditional strategies are the best ways to approach building a team? We’re not here to debate Moneyball or sabermetrics, but we’re also not here to sell jeans, to paraphrase Brad Pitt’s role. You want to know what ‘closer stuff’ is? It’s pitches that get three batters out before the opposition ties the game in the ninth inning. End of story.

To read that a pitcher has ‘closer velocity’, funny enough, is the same speed that baseball experts say is ‘ace starter velocity’ too. Did that help Kelly become the most dominant pitcher for the Red Sox, let alone the American League? No, it didn’t. So, how is that exactly going to translate to saves? Of course a pitcher would love to have a fastball that quick to burn past hitters. If that’s all it took to be a good pitcher, Kelly or any good fastball pitcher would never have a baserunner in their careers.

A closer’s mentality is definitely different than a starter’s philosophy or a middle reliever’s mindset. The pressure is there to think that you are the only thing standing between your team winning or suffering utter defeat and possible embarrassment from choking in the final frame. It’s important for the closer to stifle any hope that the other team will get a runner in scoring position and have a chance at tying or winning the game. Oftentimes, that concept has led people to believe that the closer has to use three fastballs zooming past each of the three next bats, to hurry back into the dugout to celebrate.

When has that ever been the only thing a closer needed?

To be fair to Cafardo, instead of harping on his semantics, he did take note that a fastball isn’t the only thing Kelly needs to have ‘closer stuff’. He said, “Kelly pitched better as a starter his last outing, pitching ‘backwards’ as one scout put it, leading more with off-speed stuff than his fastball.”

Even there, the anonymous scout said that using off-speed pitches early in the count is like pitching in reverse to traditional thinking. If Kelly pitched better, then does it matter what pitch a starter or closer uses in the pitch count as long as he does the job?

Mariano Rivera is considered one of the best closers to ever play in the majors, and he threw fastballs hard. had his fastest pitch clocked at about 94 mph, while only declining to about 92 mph before he retired. And, even Rivera knew that speed alone would not be enough. He used a cutter, which is a form of fastball, about 61% of the time. Rivera also threw a changeup and slider sparingly throughout his career, while throwing a traditional four-seamer about 38%. A cutter, for those less familiar with pitch types, is considered a fastball but with more movement to the pitcher’s glove side when it gets to the plate. It doesn’t bend like a curveball or dance like a knuckleball by any means; however, the movement is calculated to look like a straight fastball until it’s too late for the batter to check his swing or adjust to its new location. Speed is only as important as the location and movement to fool the opposition.

Aug 5, 2015; Bronx, NY, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara (19) and Boston Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart (23) celebrate after defeating the New York Yankees 2-1 at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Judging by Kelly’s body of work this season, he might have the velocity but he doesn’t have the location or movement necessarily pinned down. And, if you traditionalists want to refer back to your faith, you don’t have the time to pin it down when the dugout and victory lane await, right?

Kelly has thrown the following pitches this season: fastball (68.4%), slider (12.3%), curve (9.6%), and changeup (9.7%). Every nine innings, Kelly gives up a ratio of 1.15 home runs. Lineups are hitting .283 against him. His velocity adds to the physics of the crack that their bats make, as 79% of balls that are hit off of Kelly are rated as driven medium or hard. Not exactly an easy time for defenders if those balls are grounders.

While these pitches are tools that can be used for a closer to be effective, let’s just remember one more thing: Uehara. The man is 40 years old, and he’s earned 25 saves in a season where his team only gave him 27 chances to do so. That means out of the 50 wins that the Red Sox currently have, Uehara closed out half of them. His opposing batting average is .185 and his HR/9 ratio is only 0.67. Koji’s pitched 40.1 innings to Kelly’s 93.2, which is less than half of the work but it also says a lot considering Kelly is currently a starter.

Both of these Red Sox pitchers strike many batters out. Kelly actually has more pitches in his arsenal than Koji, as the 2014 All-Star closer has only thrown three different fastballs this season. The more important difference to take note is that Uehara’s velocity is ridiculously slower than Kelly. Koji’s four-seamer and two-seamer travel at 87 mph, and his splitter almost needs a cane or a wheelchair to approach the plate with any semblance of speed, as it’s clocked at 79 mph.

If these pitches were just straight and down the middle of the plate, they would look like beach balls to the batters, who would drive them out of the park with ease. They don’t do that to Uehara, hence why he’s been able to succeed at such an age. He doesn’t need to throw fast to throw well; he just does the job.

The key to being a good closer is to be a good pitcher who gets three batters out by any means necessary, without mentally breaking to the pressure of the situation. As Cafardo says, “If Kelly can do it, then you enter the 2016 season with Uehara, Tazawa, and Kelly as the final three in the bullpen and you just have to fill in the rest.” Trying out Kelly, at this point, is as good as any other idea. Between Tazawa blowing saves and the lack of success from any of the other bullpen candidates, why not take a shot at Kelly? If you’re losing, what’s another loss going to matter here or there?

Just don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work. Kelly’s been mentally broken many times after seeing many of the batters once through the lineup. Maybe that makes him the perfect man in the bullpen, only pitching one or two innings. He could also be exactly what runners in scoring position want to see: a pitcher who often throws hard, straight pitches that are left up high in the strike zone. Don’t assume that the speed of his fastball is going to make him a dominant closer. It’s only one of a number of tools that a closer needs, with his mind being the most important one.

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