The Boston Red Sox have a bevy of quality pitching prospects, but when the non-waiver trade deadline came around on July 31, Boston chose to trade for a starting pitcher as part of its return package.
That pitcher was Joe Kelly, who was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals and immediately became the second-most seasoned veteran in Boston's rotation behind Clay Buchholz. That's a stunning turnaround for a team that had Jon Lester, John Lackey and Jake Peavy as part of its rotation just a week before the deadline.
While Kelly only has 273 major league innings under his belt entering Tuesday night, he's shown through two starts with Boston that he has a chance to stay in the rotation long term. Even better, he's tied to the Red Sox through 2018, giving the team cost certainty, flexibility and a long-term asset to leverage.
The right-hander's calling card is ground-ball percentage. Hurlers with high ground-ball tendencies can have that feature work for and against them.
As FanGraphs notes, someone who gives up grounders will frequently give up more hits but limit the impact of these hits. Grounders are more difficult to field than fly balls, but fly balls travel a farther distance and are more likely than grounders to result in extra bases.
Kelly has induced 56.6 percent of all contact onto the ground, easy pickings for the defense to scoop up and record outs. Out of all starters with at least 40 innings pitched this season, Kelly ranks eighth in all of baseball in ground-ball percentage.
If Kelly can be backed by a solid infield defense, the value he can return to the club as a quality arm is notable.
He'll never be known as a strikeout pitcher, as evidenced by his career 6.0 strikeouts-per-nine rate, and he could stand to trim his career 3.1 walk rate, but as long as he limits the damage done by extra bases, there's a role for Kelly in the rotation. Maybe he'll never be an ace, but there's significant value in someone's ability to generate outs and eat innings in the middle of a rotation.
So far, Kelly has delivered as a stable pitcher for Boston. He's given up three runs across his two starts for the club, totaling 13 innings while punching out six and walking seven. It must be said, however, that his two opponents were the Cincinnati Reds and the Cardinals, his former team. What happens when Kelly starts making his way through AL lineups and the designated hitter on a regular basis?
Given Boston's wealth of young starting pitching and questions about Kelly's ultimate effectiveness, it's possible that the Red Sox may view Kelly as a future reliever, a role he has some experience in already.
The 26-year-old could contribute greatly out of the bullpen if that is the case. Pitchers tend to experience an uptick in velocity when moving from the rotation to the bullpen, as Brad Johnson of Fake Teams writes. This is because the pitchers do not need to conserve their arm for long stints and know they will be in the game for only one or two innings at a time, which allows for extra effort with each delivery.
What is Joe Kelly's long-term role with Boston?
Kelly's fastball has checked in at an average of 94.7 mph over his career thus far, per FanGraphs. Combine an uptick in velocity plus his ground-ball profile, and Kelly could emerge as a weapon in the bullpen that shuts down power bats and induces double plays in a role much like Burke Badenhop's for Boston this season.
If Kelly can work on reducing his walks and elevate his strikeout rate, he could be remarkably similar to John Lackey, whom St. Louis received in exchange for Kelly and Allen Craig, as Brett Cowett of Fire Brand of the American League writes. Kelly is young enough that there is a real possibility he can make the minimal improvements necessary to justify Lackey comparisons.
Thus far, Kelly is proving he can be a big part of what Boston is building for 2015 and beyond.