In the “Breaking Bad” series, I attempt to break down raw data about a specific player to try and understand or maybe explain their relative level of success. Since Joe Kelly has 6 starts at the Major League level under his belt, now seems like a great time to analyze Joe’s body of work for the Cardinals. First, understand that Kelly does not represent a typical fastball, changeup, curveball pitcher. He naturally throws a 2-seam fastball with a lot of sink to it. Second, you should realize that despite his success thus far as a starter, he probably belongs in the bullpen which will provide him an opportunity to work more on his secondary and tertiary pitches.
That said, he has managed to produce some impressive results. In 6 starts, he has gone 33.1 innings and posted a 2.70 ERA while doing so. The 1.440 WHIP, 1.62 SO/BB ratio, and .305 BAbip all indicate that the ERA is not sustainable, but he has somehow managed to keep the Cardinals in every single game he has started. His game scores go 52, 41, 43, 55, 53, and 66. Maybe his success consists of some smoke and mirrors magic. Consider his 6 starts:
- 5.0 IP, 1 ER, 79 pitches
- 4.1 IP, 2 ER, 81 pitches
- 6.0 IP, 3 ER, 93 pitches
- 6.0 IP, 2 ER, 85 pitches
- 6.0 IP, 2 ER, 96 pitches
- 6.0 IP, 0 ER, 97 pitches
Granted, he has benefited from timing a bit in that he has had 4 home starts versus 2 road starts, but his home/away splits do not contain a significant red flag that indicates an issue with either split. This all begs the question: How does he do it?
Well, he does have a 0.89 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. He certainly is no Jake Westbrook (1.41 GB/FB), but he does manage to stay around the strike zone enough to get a lot of weak swings. Opposing hitters tag Kelly for an extra-base hit about 4.8% of all plate appearances. Of the hits he surrenders, about 20% are for extra bases. For reference, Adam Wainwright yields extra bases on 8.4% of all plate appearances and 34% of all hits go for extras. Even in his better years, Wainwright barely slid under the 6.0% mark for XBH%. The relative proliferation of singles has allowEd Kelly to regularly put men on base without yielding a significant number of runs. The fact that Kelly continues to hold opponents to a .375 slugging percentage speaks volumes about the quality of contact hitters make.
Delve deeper into his pitch data, and you will find that when hitters get to any 3-x count, Kelly relies almost solely on his 2-seamer with sink. He goes with that pitch about 84% of the time in 3-x counts, and that number may actually be slightly higher as it is difficult to differentiate at times between his sinking fastball and what appears as a 4-seam fastball. ON average, the 2 pitches have about the same average velocity and break in very similar ways. The key to Kelly’s success is the late break in his pitches which probably appears most distinctly in his changup. He can throw a relatively tight changeup that spins hard and breaks late. The actual drop mimics that of some cut fastballs, but the changeup clocks in around 83-84 mpg. Given that he throws a legitimate 94-95 mph fastball with good consistency, the differential has the desired impact on hitters.
Kelly’s ability to keep hitters just slightly off-balance has been great thus far, but he does tend to lose his release point a lot during a game. The end result is that he often moves the release point a lot along the vertical axis, and the pitch result often leads analysts to conclude that he is guiding the ball. This notion deserves serious consideration, because many release points that move up the vertical axis are accompanied by a drop in pitch velocity.
The good news for Cardinal Nation? Kelly may not be left in a starting role long enough to become overexposed. If the Cardinals can either acquire another starting pitcher or get Jaime Garcia off of the DL, Kelly would be a great fit in the bullpen. In a relief role, Kelly could reach back a bit more and consistently hit 97-98 mph with his fastball, and that added velocity coupled with his tight changeup could be a great addition to a struggling set of relievers. Consider his first 6 starts a bit of a win-win scenario, because I highly doubt Kelly was really ever intended to be part of the starting pitching plan in St. Louis.
All data used was procured from www.brooksbaseball.net, home of PitchFX data and other cool stuffs.
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