Boston Red Sox: Is Joe Kelly a starter next year?


In the popular TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation, a marked shift in episode quality from passable to extraordinary was noted at almost the exact same time as Captain William T. Riker grew a beard. The change was so dramatic, both to his chin and to the enjoyment of the show, that the two became synonymous and the emergence of Riker’s beard was seen as somewhat akin to the opposite of jumping the shark.

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So too did Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Joe Kelly acquire his own magic facial hair and along with it found an almost miraculous turn around in fortunes.

In 2014 the Red Sox traded competent starting pitcher John Lackey to the St Louis Cardinals in return for Allen Craig and Kelly. Craig was a risk, a gamble placed on his struggles ending with a glorious rebound. Such a revival was not forthcoming. A fan favorite in the Cardinals system, Kelly threw haze with a four pitch mix and a 96-98 MPH fastball. Control and consistency were much a concern, but he was only 26 and was improving year on year. On top of this, Kelly would be pitching at league minimum and be under team control through 2018. It seemed to many that, even if the Craig experiment failed, at least Kelly would make the trade worth it.

The jury is still out. Despite his preseason prediction on WEEI radio that he would be in line for the 2015 AL Cy Young award, Kelly started the season struggling. In 4 appearances in April he posted a 4.94 ERA, inflated by two consecutive outings of 5 earned runs apiece against the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays respectfully. Worse was yet to come. In May he would pitch to the tune of a near-catastrophic 6.53 ERA and cement himself as well and truly persona non grata in Boston. After three good starts in June, not surrendering more than 2 runs in each, the wheels came off again on June 23 against the Baltimore Orioles. Kelly lasted only 3 innings and gave up 5 runs on 8 hits, including 2 walks.

It seemed to many that, even if the Craig experiment failed, at least Kelly would make the trade worth it.

With that, Kelly was optioned to AAA, like all batteries when they have trouble lasting for long enough. What went wrong? Well, for a start, Kelly was failing to go beyond the first round through the order. His fastball was also losing control in longer outings and sitting up in the zone too frequently. Both hallmarks of a pitcher who could play better from the bullpen, you’d think.

Not so, as the Red Sox first under Cherington, then more recently under new President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski, confirmed a commitment to Kelly as a starter, at least for now. In a Q&A session with the media, as reported by Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe on September 18, Dombrowski said the following of Kelly:

"“He can start, and if he can start, there’s usually more value than being in the bullpen. I don’t see why he can’t be a starter. We have to have some guys who can pitch a lot of innings. But what he has shown so far, he has the ability to be a big-league starter. He’s got the stuff to be a big-league starter.”"

While this is definitely a show of confidence in Kelly, Dombrowski didn’t come out and say that they will have him in their 2016 rotation. However according to Rob Bradford of WEEI talking live on Red Sox Hot Stove Chat, it’s likely that Boston will do just that:

"“You need power arms in the bullpen, but I honestly don’t know if Kelly throwing 100 MPH out of the bullpen is going to translate to more outs. Learning how to pitch, not throwing harder, is going to maximise his value, and if you do that you always prioritize finding a starter.”"

On August 1, Kelly would notch his first win of what would be a streak of 8 consecutive wins, a feat not accomplished in Boston since Pedro Martinez in 1999. His ERA for the month was an astonishingly improved 2.68 which was enough to haul his overall ERA down from 6.11 to 4.94 and further to 4.82 where it finished for the year. His reliance on his offspeed pitches (notably his slider and changeup) increased and, while swings and misses were at seemingly a premium, he was generating a lot of weak contact. Even so, his K/9 was a career high 7.37 and, despite still maintaining a high walk rate, he was able to pull off big outs when it mattered. To cap it all off, he sported a fancy new set of upper-lip plummage, an outward indication of the inward adjustments that had taken place.

However there was still talk that, actually, there wasn’t much different about Kelly at all, mustache excepted. To compound it, Kelly always projected as a better reliever and, with Boston’s starting pitching woes perhaps only being outdone by their bullpen woes in 2015, it would make sense for Kelly to make a move to the pen. All things considered though, it’s hard to argue with results and 8 wins in a row is difficult to pass off as fluke alone. So, as Bradford suggests, the Red Sox are likely to wait and see with Kelly:

"“I think you have to see if you can continue the run he went on for those eight starts before being hurt.”"

Obviously then, one would imagine Kelly will be kept on a short leash. Dombrowski is determined to bring Boston back to contention in 2016 and, as such, there is precious little room for a struggling starter or a project player who may or may not pan out. Results are what kept Kelly pitching and are ultimately what will keep him pitching next year.

The jury may be out on Kelly, but he has the stuff and the opportunity to make it work. It remains to be seen if he can put it all together as a starting pitcher in 2016 or if he’s headed to the pen after all. Until then, we may all sit back and wonder about what would be if Rick Porcello grew some facial hair also.

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