The Dodgers have reached an agreement with free agent relief pitcher Joe Kelly on a three-year, $25 million deal, which was initially reported as close by Ken Rosenthal and Robert Murray, while Jeff Passan broke the terms, and Jon Morosi confirmed that contract is agreed to.
Joe Kelly should be a familiar sounding name to Dodgers fans. After all, back in Game 1 of the 2013 NLCS, he did this to a red-hot Hanley Ramirez and essentially ruined any chances the Dodgers had that year.
Oh yeah, and about two months ago he pitched six scoreless innings against the Dodgers en route to beating them as a member of the Red Sox in the 2018 World Series.
Fandom bitterness aside, it’s still a rather surprising deal for the Dodgers to make considering their past unwillingness to spend on the bullpen. Kelly is entering his age-31 season in 2019, and he has only spent the past two years as a full-time reliever.
In those years, Kelly had a 2.79 ERA and 3.49 FIP over 58 innings in 2017, and followed that with a 4.39 ERA and 3.57 FIP over 62.2 innings in 2018. His strikeout rates were average (21.9% in 2017, 23.9% in 2018), while his walk rates were below average (11.3% in 2017, 11.2% in 2018). He does at least keep the ball out of the air (25.9% in 2017, 27.9% in 2018) and has thus only allowed seven home runs over the last two seasons combined.
So Kelly has been an effective reliever, but as something like a middle relief option more than anything better. While ~$8 million per over three years isn’t going to break the bank, it’s definitely a surprising choice from the front office and surely seems to indicate that they see things going significantly better for him in the future.
So what could the Dodgers see in Kelly? Well, I’m assuming a big reason is the two runs (one earned) he gave up in 11.1 postseason innings this past season, as he’s easily looked his most impressive when the lights were brightest (.391 OPS against).
Additionally, his stuff has ticked up in a major way out of the pen, as he now sits between 97-99 mph and touches 101 mph with a fastball he throws ~50%. He also features a knuckle curve from 84-87 mph that he throws ~19% of the time and a change-up from 86-88 mph that he throws ~11% of the time. Kelly all but abandoned the sinker last year as he used it just ~5% of the time, and also seemed to scrap the 88-90 mph slider during the playoffs even though he had thrown ~15% of the time during the regular season.
Perhaps the pitch selection was something the Dodgers brass looked at. The xwOBA against Kelly’s fastball was .344, but against his curve and change it was just .242 and .213, respectively. Thus, there seems like an opportunity for a breakout there if he perhaps sticks with his postseason repertoire going forward.
Either way, it’s not difficult to see how somebody with his ability could be a tweak away from being an elite-level reliever, in which case this contract will be a bargain.
So there’s a ton of upside to the Joe Kelly signing due to the quality of his stuff and potential tweaks that could maximize his ability. That said, as of now, they are investing three years and borderline setup man type of money into a pitcher that has achieved his upside for around the final 11 innings in 2018. That is the harsh reality of the deal at the moment and inevitably what makes this signing a significant risk, even if it is also something to get excited to watch.
In the end, this deal surely represents the Dodgers taking steps towards building a sturdier bridge to Kenley Jansen in the off-season for once. Historically, that plan of action hasn’t worked out all that well for teams with the exception of elite-level relievers, so that’s probably what the Dodgers are hoping they’re getting in Kelly.