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The Indians need Joe Kelly: While We’re Waiting

Down the regular season stretch, the 107-win Boston Red Sox had a bullpen full of leaks as they saw many blown leads, which left many to wonder if they would struggle to find October success. Instead, Craig Kimbrel found his fastball, Joe Kelly his control, and converted-starter Nathan Eovaldi bolstered the relief corps in a way many fans of the Cleveland Indians had hoped Trevor Bauer would. The result was the top-MLB-payroll Red Sox celebrating their fourth World Series title since 2004 when current Tribe manager Terry Francona broke the seal.1

Bullpens are known to be volatile across MLB, yet their importance for contending ballclubs has never been higher. The evolution towards Three True Outcome baseball both from the hitting and pitching perspectives has led to higher pitch counts. Earlier exits from starters has also been prominent upon studies of the Third Time Through the Order Effect as it turns out professional hitters are quite adept at adjusting the more plate appearances they obtain versus a pitcher.

Therefore, the Cleveland Indians having a known deficiency with their relief pitching heading into the 2019 season is an issue the front office must attempt to correct. Andrew Miller and Cody Allen are joined by Oliver Perez, Alexi Ogando, and Josh Tomlin as current free agents.2 Only the first two are difficult to find replacements for a budget-conscious ballclub; as the Indians can attest seeing the dominance from the duo in the 2016 postseason wane in the years thereafter without a salve.

Acquiring arms who are signed during Spring Training to miniscule deals after the main crop has been sorted and picked through will not be enough. Waiting until the trade deadline or August waivers will be too risky and too painful to endure. The time to act is early in free agency especially to acquire the type of arm the Indians need.

The front office of the Indians must complete the valuation analysis on having an elite arm in the bullpen. That is, not just a good reliever such as Brad Hand, but one of the increasing– yet still somewhat scarce– commodities of a high-90 mile per hour fastball combined with at least one pitch with filthy break. The 2018 postseason should have exposed as much since the Indians highest average velocity pitcher on the team, Neil Ramirez (95.3 miles per hour), ranked No. 65 in MLB for pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched. Such velocity is important as MLB hitters hit just a .295 wOBA against 96 mile per hour or greater fastballs but raked a .362 wOBA against those 95 miles per hour or slower. That is the difference between Jose Altuve3 and Evan Longoria.4

The immediate names that will jump to the forefront in free agency are the known names from the known high-spending teams. The Red Sox are likely to prioritize Craig Kimbrel. The New York Yankees are unlikely to allow either Zach Britton or David Robertson sign elsewhere. Perhaps it is also true of Boston’s Joe Kelly, but he did have some questions raised this season. They could be enough for an aggressive team offering early to steal away the pitcher who has the talent to become the best of the bunch available.

Kelly obviously addresses the velocity need for the Tribe as his average 98.1 mile per hour fastball ranked No. 4 in all of baseball. Interestingly, of the top velocity pitchers, Kelly deployed his fastball far less; especially for a reliever. The usage model for Kelly was a departure from the success he found in 2017 when he challenged hitters with his four-seamer at a much higher rate. Despite a 2.79 ERA and 3.49 FIP that season, there seemed to be another level to unlock as his strikeout rate (21.9%) was much lower than his contemporaries in the power arm club.

The above chart shows how much tinkering was done with his usage throughout the season. He started off pairing the fastball with his slider before working his way to a much more even approach with his curveball, slider, two-seam fastball, and change-up all finding equal time. Such dabbling was possible given the Red Sox winning at a league-high rate, but likely helped attribute to Kelly’s 4.39 ERA as his walk rates increased to alarming levels in June and July with his strikeout rates falling below 20 percent. He then found a dominant August5 only to revert to a disappointing September. Overall, his 3.59 FIP nearly matched the previous season, partially due to a small increase in strikeout rate (23.9%).

There is also renewed hope Kelly’s season of experimentation bore fruit that can be continued into his future. In 11.1 innings pitched in the postseason, he held opposing batters to a minuscule slash line of .186/.205/.186 and 0.79 ERA as the Red Sox used him as their own 2016-version Andrew Miller as he never gave up an extra base hit while striking out 13. Looking back above to his pitch usage chart, Kelly ditched all but his four-seam fastball, curve, and an occasional change up. It was by far the most he had used his curve in his career (32.94%), which kept hitters off-balance for a healthy diet of his four-seamer (57.65%).

Despite the success, the sample size was small and the memory of an up-and-down season will weigh on the minds of a Red Sox team able to target pitchers with less volatile results. The move would be a bold one for an Indians ballclub as a dip into a premier talent such as Kelly would likely mean a departure from acquiring an outfielder such as Marwin Gonzalez, who could command a similar contract. However, the skillset is both necessary and scarce without an in-house solution for this Tribe team. To keep the window propped open for contention with the Red Sox, Yankees, and Houston Astros, the best solution might be to steal one of their assets.

And so begins the annual great baseball drought from Halloween until Valentine’s Day. Here’s hoping our sweetest front office finds a way to give us a high-90 mile per hour flamethrower instead of chocolate and flowers upon meeting back up in Goodyear Arizona less than four months from now.

  1. Raise your hand if the world Series announcers droning on about how long ago 1988 was in reference to the Los Angeles Dodgers drought. []
  2. MLB free agency starts the day after the World Series, so welcome to the frenzy! []
  3. .362 wOBA, No. 29 in MLB []
  4. .295 wOBA, No. 126 in MLB []
  5. 1.42 ERA, 1.90 FIP, 26.9% K%, 7.7% BB% []