For a guy with a career minor league ERA of 3.89, Joe Kelly is about to have some high expectations thrust upon him.
For a second year in a row the St. Louis Cardinals' bullpen has generated more angst, since opening day, than anything else going on at Busch Stadium. In place of Miguel Batista J.C. Romero was the inexplicable veteran pickup released a little too late; for Ryan Franklin and Trever Miller, reliable cogs fallen on hard times, read Fernando Salas and Marc Rzepczynski. In place of Octavio Dotel and last year's Marc Rzepczynski—well, there's nobody, which is the problem. First there wasn't Eduardo Sanchez, then there wasn't Maikel Cleto and Sam Freeman, and most recently there wasn't Barret Browning or Brian Fuentes. That leaves nobody except Joe Kelly.
In the Cardinals' defense, last year's solution to the bullpen problem, alienating a top prospect so thoroughly that there's no choice but to trade him for two relievers and Edwin Jackson, seems untenable as a long term strategy. In the meantime, the Cardinals have done a good job of growing their own bullpen stalwarts; Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs have held thing together all year, and Fernando Salas has an ERA of 2.77 since the All-Star Break.
But all their other plans have fallen apart, and thanks only to Jaime Garcia's shoulder injury Cardinals fans have had a chance to see Joe Kelly, the college-closer-turned-intermittently-interesting-starter they plucked from the third round of the 2009 draft.
Here are the things I've learned, at least, since Joe Kelly showed up in St. Louis 12 starts ago:
He throws way harder than I thought he would.
Way, way harder. When people use the word "sinkerballer" my mind immediately goes to Brad Thompson and stays there, no matter what else they add. Not that it matters, of course—the words they usually add, "mid-90s", are just about the two words least-likeliest to make me think of an actual mid-90s fastball, thanks to decades of scout overreach.
But Kelly has a genuine mid-90s fastball out of the rotation, which was at least a rare thing five years ago. FanGraphs has him averaging 94.0, which makes the not-especially-tall, vaguely scrawny right-hander classmates with Brad Penny.
But I understand why he doesn't strike anyone out.
At the same time, his brand of hard-throwing seems identical to the hard-throwingness that has left Mitchell Boggs maxed out around seven strikeouts per nine innings since he began tantalizing as a bullpen asset in 2009. Like Boggs (and Penny) he's extremely reliant on his fastball, which he's thrown 68% of the time in his MLB stint; like Boggs, only moreso, his fastball seems calibrated to avoid missiong bats.
Which is okay, if a little boring. But Kelly's fastball seems a step better than Boggs's was before he made the bullpen transition, which is why I'm hoping he'll be even more effective at it. All it will take is for one of Kelly's mediocre breaking balls to take a step toward average when he begins throwing it a mile-an-hour or two harder.
He's a goofy slap-hitting outfielder trapped with a pitcher's arm.
This is the part I'm going to miss, honestly, if Joe Kelly ends up moving full-time to the bullpen. He's clearly talented as a hitter, and swift on the bases, but he moves through both activities a little like Hunter Pence's younger brother, who idolized him until he turned 15 and watched other human beings play baseball. He's tripped and stumbled around enough to draw Lonnie Smith comparisons.
Combined with the goggles it's made for a very endearing debut, which is important when nothing in his minor league numbers suggest you should be excited to watch him pitch.
The full effect of Kelly-the-starter is strange, but it's better than I thought it would be—it's of a pitcher who looks capable of eventually starting, but whose repertoire makes it clear he would have been equally touted as a mid-grade prospect if the Cardinals had kept him in the bullpen. Now that we've seen him succeed in a third-of-a-season as a starting pitcher in the major leagues, I'm a little more optimistic about his chances to be the Octavio Dotel the Cardinals couldn't otherwise afford to acquire.