Red Sox: Not Your Average Joe

May 21, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Joe Kelly (56) pitches during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
May 21, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Joe Kelly (56) pitches during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

Joe Kelly‘s mighty struggles in a Red Sox uniform have earned him a trip to Rhode Island. A better solution would have been a trip to the bullpen.

Joe Kelly’s performance throughout this entire season has been appalling, horrendous, dreadful, and such descriptive terms are likely insufficient in articulating just how poorly he has pitched.

Nonetheless, Joseph William Kelly Jr.’s recent demotion to Pawtucket was unmistakably a miscalculation in judgement. I remain perplexed by the seemingly pervasive support for said demotion among the citizenry of Red Sox Nation, and many of the writers here at BoSox Injection, including my esteemed colleague Sean Penney, who so eloquently suggested that the Red Sox may be done with Kelly.

Admittedly, Penney’s points are not without merit, and while I agree with his estimation that Kelly should be relieved of his position as a starting pitcher for the Red Sox, that is where our perspectives begin their divergence. I refuse to give up on a 27-year-old pitcher, who, irrespective of his struggles in a Red Sox uniform, remains one of a handful of Major League hurlers capable of consistently reaching triple digits on the radar gun.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports /

I am not claiming that overpowering velocity guarantees a successful baseball career. However, a sampling of present-day “number 1” starters, in combination with a quick perusal of the pitchers enshrined in Cooperstown, illustrates a significant point; for every Greg Maddux or Whitey Ford, there are ten Bob Gibson‘s or Randy Johnson‘s. With rare exception, overpowering velocity is a prerequisite for great pitching success.

Among Starting pitchers, with a minimum of 20 IP, Joe Kelly is 8th in Major League Baseball, with an average fastball velocity of 95.1 mph, ranking him above such names as Stephen Strasburg, Jose Fernandez, Max Scherzer, and Matt Harvey. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that Kelly is in the same class as the aforementioned, however, an elite arm such as Kelly’s can surely find a place at the Major League level. I would not hesitate to insert him into the seventh inning role right now, with the expectation that he would, shortly, prove worthy of set-up duties.

What renders Kelly’s demotion even more bewildering is that our bullpen has been shelled over the last week, and other than Craig Kimbrel, our bullpen is devoid of the power arms that seem omnipresent in every bullpen save ours. At the very least, Kelly deserves an opportunity to find himself as a reliever, as on average, the move from starter to reliever results in a 3 mph increase in fastball velocity, as a reliever can exert maximum effort on every pitch.

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I must warn the readers to hide the women and children prior to reading the following paragraph. In the last seven games in which the Red Sox bullpen has appeared, they have produced the following atrocious statistics: 22.2 IP, 18 H, 11 BB, 23 ER, and 7 HR. It is unfathomable to think that Joe Kelly and his 98 mph fastball were not even provided the opportunity to assist a group whose recent production, or lack thereof, can be viewed as nothing other than a cry for help.

In addition, baseball history is littered with pitchers possessing elite stuff, who, for some reason or another, were unsuccessful as starting pitchers, but upon transition to the bullpen, finally realized their immense potential.

Rather than going through a litany of names, I will bring up the name of one pitcher of whom great things were expected, yet despite possessing all of the tools necessary to dominate hitters, for whatever rhyme or reason, failed in his attempt to become an outstanding starting pitcher. The pitcher to whom I refer is Wade Davis, closer for the world-champion Kansas City Royals.

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Davis began his major league career in the Tampa Bay Rays rotation, where his lack of success resulted in his transition to the bullpen. The rest, as they say, is history.

While this article is about Joe Kelly, and not Wade Davis, I have decided to spend a fair amount of time discussing Davis’ initial struggles as a starter, along with his enormous success as a reliever, because I strongly believe that Kelly, if provided the opportunity, could enjoy a career path very similar to that experienced by Davis. Both pitchers have electric stuff; both were/are unsuccessful starting pitchers, and both conspicuously under-performed expectations as starters.

Kelly’s career won-loss record as a starter is 31-19, with an ERA of 4.13, a strikeout rate of 16.4% and walk rate of 9.3%. Davis’ career won-loss record as a starter is 31-32, with an ERA of 4.57, a strikeout rate of 16.1% and a walk rate of 8.5%. Davis’ career won-loss record as a reliever is 23-4, with an ERA of 1.39, a strikeout rate of 32.5% and a walk rate of 9.2%. His average fastball velocity as a starting pitcher was 92.0 mph, while his average fastball velocity since 2014 is nearly 95.5 mph.

The statistical similarities between Davis and Kelly as starters are rather striking, and provide support for my argument that Kelly, whose stuff is as filthy as anyone’s in baseball, could perform as poorly as he has as a starter, and progress to enjoy an elite career as a brilliant, dominant reliever.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

My last piece of evidence offered in support of my claim that Kelly would likely enjoy much greater success as a reliever than he has as a starter relies on the analysis of his statistics generated as a starter and his statistics generated as a reliever. Kelly has appeared in 109 games, 79 as a starter and 30 as a reliever. Kelly’s statistics demonstrate him to be a more successful reliever than a starter, and as a starter, he has demonstrated far greater success during his first pass through the order, with a marked decline in effectiveness thereafter. A profile such as this is shared by most relievers, or at the very least indicative of a pitcher who is an excellent candidate to become a reliever.

In 30 career games that Kelly has appeared in relief, he has an ERA of 3.25, a strikeout rate of 21.6%, and a walk rate of 6.8%. In the 79 games that Kelly has started, he has an ERA of 4.13, a strikeout rate of 16.4% and a walk rate of 9.3%. In addition, in the games that he has started, his first progression through the opposing team’s batting order has produced a strikeout rate of 19.9% and a walk rate of 8.4%, while all progressions thereafter have resulted in a strikeout rate of 14.3% and a walk rate of 9.9%, indicative of a significant reduction in effectiveness.

My final attempt to quantify Kelly’s discernible increased effectiveness during his first pass through the opposing team’s lineup is that in the thirty games in which he has appeared in relief, his first pass through the opponent’s line-up has resulted in a strikeout rate of 23% and a walk rate of only 5.4%, numbers considered borderline-elite by baseball executives.

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The combination of Kelly’s performance profile and his electric stuff renders it incumbent upon Red Sox management to give Kelly every opportunity to become the next Davis. Allowing him to languish aimlessly in Pawtucket could prove extremely costly to the team’s title hopes.