Red Sox fans don’t have much to complain about right now. The Sox are 6-1 out of the gate and have taken an early division lead. Starting pitching has been sensational, Xander’s on pace for 138 doubles, and Benintendi seems to be snapping out of the honeymoon phase. Things are looking good, but the Sox should be undefeated. Joe Kelly can’t be giving up leads like he did on Opening Day. He has the skill set to be an elite pitcher in the Major Leagues, but he’s always struggled with consistency. He’s had a roller coaster of a career, but he can be a key piece of the Sox bullpen if all goes well.
Kelly began his Major League career in St. Louis back in 2012, and immediately made a name for himself. His triple-digit fastball was overpowering, even as a rookie. He posted a 5-7 record to go with a solid 3.53 ERA, while pitching mostly as a starter. He consistently alternated between the starting rotation and the bullpen throughout the following year, but it didn’t seem to bother him. Kelly finished his second season with a 10-5 record along with a 2.69 ERA and helped carry the Cardinals to an NL pennant. Luckily, David Ortiz and the Red Sox made sure it stopped at that, and took home the World Series title. The Sox ironically snagged Kelly at the trade deadline the very next season, and this is where the inconsistency started to become an issue.
THE RED SOX YEARS
He wasn’t terrible during his first year in Boston, but didn’t come close to the numbers he put up in St. Louis. Farrell opted to slot him in a starting role and Kelly went 4-2 with a 4.11 ERA through ten starts. After a mediocre first season with the Sox, Kelly was determined for redemption.
He was so anxious to prove his worth to the Fenway Faithful that he even guaranteed a 2015 Cy Young victory prior to the season. This gave the fans something to talk about, but Kelly set the bar too high for his own good. He put up a 10-6 record through 25 starts but this didn’t correspond with his overall performance. He posted a sub-par 4.82 ERA and the Red Sox finished the season at dead last in the AL East. This was the second lowest ERA in the rotation, and far from a Cy Young caliber season.
The 2016 campaign was even more of a train wreck. Kelly suffered an early right shoulder impingement and was sidelined until mid-May. He wasn’t the same when he returned and struggled consistently. This landed him a spot in Pawtucket for a good portion of the season, but Kelly returned as a reliever for the tail end of the year. He only logged 40 innings and put up a dismal 5.18 ERA, but finished off strong by throwing three and 2/3 scoreless innings in the ALDS.
Kelly was able to carry the momentum into 2017 where he solidified himself as a reliever. He threw 58 innings over 54 appearances and nearly cut his ERA in half from 2016, finishing at 2.79. He held hitters to a minuscule .202 average and began to look like the 2013 version of himself. Kelly even threw the hardest pitch of the entire 2017 MLB season during an at-bat against Aaron Judge. The pitch was originally clocked at 103.5 mph but was later estimated to be just over 102, which was still the hardest pitch of the year.
AN OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
The inconsistency is frustrating, but Kelly has true potential. We saw how he helped propel St. Louis to an NL pennant in just his second season, and his numbers from last year weren’t far off. He has a next-level fastball to go with a sinker, slider, curveball, and change-up, but needs to learn how to harness his velocity. You’d expect more strikeouts out of a guy who can hit 102 on the gun.
If Kelly can perform like he did last season, the Red Sox will have one of the best 8th- 9th inning tandems in the Major Leagues.
Cover image courtesy of CBS St. Louis.