The righty reliever may be turning the corner into the shutdown setup man the Red Sox have always envisioned.
Joe Kelly always had nasty stuff that projected him to be a dominant pitcher. A scorching hot fastball combined with a devastating curve and decent changeup turned heads from the moment Kelly entered the league with the St. Louis Cardinals.
However, the Red Sox reliever was unable to piece his talent together consistently.
In 2017, he gave the Red Sox a peek of what type of reliever he could become until the wheels fell off toward the end of the season. Kelly had a 1.07 ERA headed into July before he experienced hamstring tightness, slowing his momentum to the season.
After missing most of July, Kelly entered August with an 1.49 ERA as a setup man for the Red Sox.
Kelly was putting up scoreless innings nearly every game, but the righty still struggled to put away batters with his nasty stuff. His fastball was a straight-line 100 mph rocket without movement that didn’t fool any batters despite how fast it was. His secondary stuff had good movement but poor control in two-strike counts. The Red Sox saw the potential Kelly possessed, but Kelly never accumulated the strike out numbers his stuff would suggest.
Kelly only had five strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings pitched in April and seven in 10 1/3 innings in June.
But the rest of his season wouldn’t be as smooth as the first half was.
Kelly struggled mightily in August, posting a 6.75 ERA in 9 1/3 innings pitched. He gave up 12 hits with an opponents batting average of .308 for the month.
September was an improvement for Kelly, but he still had occasional slip ups. In 11 1/3 innings, he had a 3.97 ERA as the Red Sox clinched first place but limped into playoffs rather unspectacularly. Kelly finished the year with a 4-1 record while posting a 2.79 ERA along with 52 strikeouts in 58 innings.
Great year, but there’s another notch Kelly could reach.
That notch has been reached by Kelly this season. Kelly is 2-0 with a 2.11 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings. Not only is he preserving leads, but he’s striking batters out at a higher pace than last season. His K/9 rate is at 10.13, which is the highest rate as a full-time reliever in his career. Opponents are batting .153 against him while hitting a .181 slugging percentage. Even if contact is made, it hasn’t been hard.
While Kelly is yet to give up a home run, he’s struggled with command at times. We’ve seen Kelly enter games without any idea of where the ball is going — as evident in New York against the Yankees. While a subpar series doesn’t define a pitcher, bad command leads to a high amount of walks. The righty has eight so far. The last thing the Red Sox need is another bullpen piece who will walk the bases in Yankee Stadium; they already have Matt Barnes and Heath Hembree to do that.
Speaking of the Yankees, Kelly has become a fan favorite in the city of Boston for his role in the brawl with Yankees hard-o Tyler Austin. Kelly intentionally plunked Austin after his dirty slide at second base. Austin pulled a tantrum at home plate by slamming his bat, Kelly waved him on. Austin charged the mound in order to “not be pushed around,” only to be put in his place by Kelly once he arrived. Since that night occurred, Kelly has been praised as the team’s Wild Thing.
Not only has Kelly been fearless as a player, he’s been confident as a pitcher. He’s improved in every major statistical category this season, showing he may be the pitcher we all thought he could be.
However, after last season’s second-half trauma we can’t help but fear: Can we trust Kelly to do this for an entire season?