In 2013, Joe Kelly was an above-average pitcher -- perhaps even exceptional. He posted an overall 10-5 record and 2.69 ERA overall; out of the rotation, he was dominant, going 9-3 with a 2.28 ERA in 15 starts.
From 2000-2015, Kelly is one of 19 pitchers to post an ERA of 2.30 or under as a starter (min. 15 starts).
Of the other 18, 16 have been All-Stars (the other exceptions being Jake Arrieta and Rich Harden), seven have been Cy Young winners (Chris Carpenter, Roger Clemens, Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Pedro Martinez, Jake Peavy), and nearly all have performed at the level of what might be seen as an ace.
When the Red Sox faced Kelly in the World Series in 2013, they thought they had a pretty good read on him, an advanced scouting report that would allow their deep lineup to get to him early. Instead, Kelly dominated early, retiring the first nine batters he faced and ultimately limiting Boston to two runs in 5 1/3 innings in the last St. Louis victory of that series.
Though it hasn’t always been apparent in his nearly 13 months in Boston, there’s a reason why the Red Sox thought that Kelly represented an intriguing acquisition when they brought him back in the John Lackey trade. Was there a chance that he might not take as a starter? Of course – in the same way that there might have been a chance that an elite starting pitching prospect acquired in a deal might never have a major league career of which to speak. (Cautionary tale: Casey Kelly is 1-8 with a 4.94 ERA, 6.6 strikeouts, and 3.7 walks per nine innings in Double A.)
Kelly represented a pitcher with a demonstrated track record of big league success as well as the raw tools – the arm strength to throw hard, the movement to get hitters to pound groundballs, the ability to spin breaking balls – that suggested an intriguing combination. He was, in a way, a prospect, yet he was a prospect who had already shown in the big leagues, at least for those 15 starts in 2013, something close to what you’d want a prospect to become.
Kelly has struggled for most of 2015. It’s hard not to compare his 7-6 record and 5.21 ERA in 21 starts (sandwiched around a demotion to Triple A) with Lackey’s excellence in St. Louis (10-8, 2.99 in 25 starts). Even members of the Red Sox front office who were a party to the trade acknowledge the disparity in results.
“John Lackey obviously is pitching very well, and our two guys aren’t living up to the expectations we had for them, so it’s probably not a very good time to evaluate the trade for us. We were trading for the long run. So we’ll see,” Red Sox senior baseball analyst Tom Tippett said at the SaberSeminar over the weekend.
“I completely understand why people would look at it the way they do right now, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the 10 or 11 years I’ve been around the team, trades can look very different at different points in time. They look one way when they happen, another way a month later, another way six months later, and sometimes they look very different two years down the road. … In my view, if we can figure out how to turn Joe Kelly into a No. 2 or 3 starter with all those great tools he has, it might look very good a few years from now.”
This month, Kelly has looked a lot more like the pitcher whom the Sox were hoping to get. He was spectacular on Monday against the White Sox, allowing two runs in a season-high 7 1/3 innings while striking out four and walking one. In August, he’s 5-0 with a 3.03 ERA, 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings, and 2.7 walks per nine.
His numbers for the year remain terrible. Overall, he’s offered more evidence that as a starter he’s been a party to the Red Sox’ shortcomings this year than he has that he is part of a future rotation solution. But the preponderance of evidence about the former trait doesn’t rule out the possibility of the latter.
As Tippett noted, trades can look very different at different points in time. Pitchers can look very different at different points in time.
Kelly has thrown about 400 career innings with a roughly league-average performance, as evidenced by an ERA+ (ERA relative to league average, adjusted for park) of 101. From 2000-14, there were 29 pitchers who, through their age 27 seasons, produced an ERA+ between 95 and 105 (5 percent better or worse than league average) while amassing 300-500 big league innings.
At ages 28 and/or 29, there were enough breakouts and standout performances from pitchers like Ted Lilly, Carl Pavano, Jeff Samardzija, Tyson Ross, and others to offer reminders that Kelly’s career path still has an array of possibilities.
That’s no guarantee of success, but based on what Kelly has shown thus far this month, his performance over the duration of the season now looks about as intriguing as anything that the Red Sox have a chance to evaluate over the season’s remaining weeks.