Our annual Report Card series evaluates and grades the 2017 season of each member of the Boston Red Sox. Up next – RHP Joe Kelly.
After his career as a starting pitcher bottomed out, Joe Kelly finally found his niche in the bullpen last season with the Boston Red Sox. This year he took that success a step forward by developing into one of the team’s most reliable middle relievers.
The move to the bullpen not only protects Kelly from his limited arsenal, the shorter outings allow him to unleash a blazing fastball. Kelly’s average pitch speed of 99 mph was second in the majors behind New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, per Statcast.
That devastating two-seam fastball can ramp up to as high as 102.2 mph, a mark Kelly hit three times this season. One of those occasions came in New York on a pitch that Aaron Judge somehow fouled off to stay alive. The Yankee Stadium radar gun clocked it at 103 mph, while NESN claimed it hit 104. Had the NESN gun been deemed accurate the pitch would have flirted with being the fastest pitch in the majors this season. As it was, Statcast officially recorded it at 102.2 mph. At the time, it was the fastest pitch thrown this season, while only Chapman and Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Felipe Rivero threw a faster by season’s end.
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Kelly was dominant in the first half, posting a 1.49 ERA, while holding opposing hitters to a .189 batting average and .530 OPS. Only three American League pitchers owned a lower ERA before the break, while he ranked 22nd in BAA and 14th in OPS allowed (minimum 20 innings pitched).
His breakout season was derailed when Kelly landed on the disabled list with a left hamstring strain in July. The injury would keep him on the sidelines for a full month and he wasn’t quite the same pitcher when he returned. Kelly allowed at least one run in three of his first four appearances following his return from the DL, coughing up a pair of leads in the process. He finished the month of August with a 6.75 ERA, adding more than a full run to his once sparkling ERA.
The right-hander would settle down to toss scoreless outings in five of his final six regular-season outings. He would add 2 2/3 scoreless innings in the postseason, earning Boston’s lone win in their ALDS series against the Houston Astros. As discouraging as it was to see Kelly struggle to reclaim his previous form following the injury, a strong finish provides optimism moving forward.
Kelly remains under team control until 2019 and is expected to earn somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.6 million in arbitration this winter. The price remains a relative bargain, so long as the pitcher we see next season is closer to Kelly’s first half than his post-injury second half.
While Kelly briefly spent time in the 8th inning setup role, he hasn’t proven himself consistent enough to retain that spot when everyone in the Red Sox bullpen is available. He should still maintain a key role in the bullpen next season working in the sixth or seventh inning.