When the Cardinals turned to Joe Kelly in June to fill the role of the team’s fifth starter, the word “serviceable” was tossed around by a lot of fans and media. “Contingency” plan. Temporary. Sure, Kelly had shown flashes and was good in spots for the team, but what was reasonable to expect from him every fifth day as a member of the starting rotation?
Kelly has not only succeeded since entering the rotation on June 21, but he has exceeded expectations. Fully acknowledging that the last seven games (and 39.1 innings) are a relatively small sample size, let’s take a look at where Kelly has had success. As always, numbers are per Fangraphs.
Kelly started 2013 in the bullpen after losing a battle for the fifth starting spot in spring training to Shelby Miller. After throwing 107 innings in 2012, Kelly was used out of the pen and in a few spot situations, amassing 27 innings before his first of his last seven starts on June 21, at Busch Stadium against the Texas Rangers.
Over those seven starts, Kelly has thrown 39.1 IP given up 32 hits and 7 earned runs, walked 16 and struck out 23. His ERA is 1.60 ERA and his WHIP is 1.22.
But the number that stands out the most to me is that Kelly has stranded more than 90% of all base runners. Over the past month, he has stranded more than 93%, best in the National League. This number isn’t as large of an aberration as you might first think. For the season, Kelly has stranded 84.3% of runners, as both a starter and a reliever. So why is he having so much success now as a starter?
Obviously, both luck and defense plays a factor. Kelly has at times, like all pitchers, benefitted from both. But what else changes when a runner reaches base? The pitcher throws from the stretch rather than the wind-up. So does his leap from the bullpen to the starting rotation add to Kelly’s level of comfort going into the stretch when a runner reaches base?
“Yeah. Stretch, wind-up, I just have confidence when anyone gets on,” he told me after his start Tuesday night.
“I try to induce ground balls, pitch down, make pitchers’ pitches. I just try to induce something soft on the ground.”
And he has done exactly that. Since joining the rotation, Kelly’s ground ball rate is up to 49.6%, his fly ball rate down to 28.9% (both positives compared to his full season numbers.)
He isn’t giving up home runs, with just three over the last seven starts, and two of those in the same game. His HR/FB rate is 8.6% over that span, and his HR/9IP is down to 0.68% (both better than his full season numbers.)
Again, take these numbers for what they worth, but the results have been encouraging. While Kelly certainly has work to do in terms of effectiveness and lasting longer into games, he has given the Cardinals exactly what they need at the back of the rotation over the last seven starts.
This doesn’t mean that he will be part of the long-term plans, but that’s not what matters right now. What matters is that a guy who was once seen as a contingency, has now become part of quite simply, the plan. That’s not a stretch.