Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly’s postseason production has been refreshing

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 24: Joe Kelly #56 of the Boston Red Sox delivers the pitch during the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game Two of the 2018 World Series at Fenway Park on October 24, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 24: Joe Kelly #56 of the Boston Red Sox delivers the pitch during the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game Two of the 2018 World Series at Fenway Park on October 24, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

Joe Kelly’s season has extremely inconsistent but his return to form in the postseason has made him a significant piece to the Boston Red Sox bullpen.

When Joe Kelly is throwing well he’s capable of being one of the most dangerous relievers in baseball. When he’s not, he’s a liability to the Boston Red Sox bullpen. This postseason we are seeing the best of the flame-throwing right-hander.

The regular season was a roller coaster filled with breathtaking peaks and stomach-churning lows. Kelly was shelled for four runs in his first appearance of the season, inviting critics to grumble about Boston’s late-inning relief. He emerged as a fan-favorite for his role in igniting a brawl with the New York Yankees and ripped off two stellar months, allowing only one earned run over 25 2/3 innings in April and May. Suddenly, Kelly was the most popular guy in the bullpen and a trusted setup man.

Then a midsummer slump hit with Kelly posting an ERA north of 8.00 in June and July. It seemed as if he straightened himself out in August when he allowed only two runs over 12 2/3 innings but he fell apart again in September when he posted an 8.31 ERA.

An 8.31 ERA or higher in four different months and a collective 0.78 ERA in the other three. How is that even possible? Kelly’s Jekyll and Hyde season has made him one of the more frustrating players to watch.

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On the other hand, Kelly is a joy to watch when he’s on top of his game. That’s what we’re seeing this postseason. Kelly has allowed only one run over 7 2/3 innings (1.23 ERA) with seven strikeouts and no walks this postseason.

The lack of walks has been the key to his success. Kelly’s 4.39 BB/9 was the 12th highest among American League relievers this season. Craig Kimbrel (4.48) and Matt Barnes (4.52) actually had higher walk rates but at least those guys could recover from their mistakes with elite strikeout rates. Kelly’s 9.32 K/9 put him outside of the league’s top-30 relievers. That’s mildly disappointing for someone with his velocity.

Kelly doesn’t generate enough swinging strikes, producing a 10.8 SwStr% that places him in the bottom half among AL relievers, to put hitters away with velocity alone. He needs to locate with that heater and keep opposing hitters honest by throwing his breaking ball for strikes.

He’s been doing that this postseason, which was evident in his latest appearance in Game 2 of the World Series.

Kelly struck out Max Muncy to begin the seventh inning, getting the slugger to swing and miss at a pair of curveballs in the strike zone before putting him away with a 98 mph fastball up and away. Three swinging strikes, all on pitches in the strike zone!

Yasiel Puig was put away quickly on a weak grounder to third base. Both pitches Puig saw were upper-90’s fastballs in the zone.

A clean inning concluded with Kelly catching Yasmani Grandal looking for a called third strike. Kelly got ahead of the batter with a pair of curveballs for called strikes. He tried to paint the corners with fastballs that barely missed to draw the count even. Kelly finished him off with a changeup that caught Grandal by surprise. Grandal was sitting on the fastball and when you’re waiting for 99 mph heat, an 85 mph change is nearly unhittable.

This wasn’t Kelly’s first good outing in the postseason – he’s been solid in almost every appearance – but it may have been his best. Retiring the side in order with a pair of strikeouts is a great inning for any reliever but I’m more impressed with his ability to control the strike zone with each of his pitches. He managed to put one hitter away with three swinging strikes and another with three looking. That’s as good as it gets for Kelly.

The right-hander expressed to reporters after the game his relief in how his season has turned around at the most opportune time, according to NBC Sports Boston.

"“It’s been fun,” Kelly said. “Just playing good baseball as a team all-around, obviously winning, trying to attain that goal we set early in spring training of getting to the World Series and see what happens. So to be able to contribute and not stink is refreshing.”"

Kelly’s performance in the playoffs certainly does not “stink.” Leave it to Kelly to come through with the quote of the postseason.

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With free agency looming for Kelly after this season, the World Series represents his last opportunity to convince the Red Sox, or other potential suitors, that he’s worth being paid as a top-notch reliever. If Kelly continues to pitch this well the rest of the series and earns a championship ring for is efforts, many of us will forget about the hiccups along the way when he did stink.