SARASOTA, Fla. — Joe Kelly was a relief pitcher in college, setting a record at California-Riverside with 24 career saves. But the St. Louis Cardinals drafted Kelly as a starter in 2009 and called him to the majors in that role three years later.
The righthander was switched back to the bullpen for much of the 2013 season. Then he became a starter again, which was certainly how the Red Sox viewed Kelly when they obtained him at the 2014 trade deadline.
The puzzle remains unsolved. Kelly is 28 now and has played parts of five seasons in the majors without his role ever being truly defined. Counting the playoffs, Kelly has started 83 games and pitched in relief 54 times.
Kelly is a pitcher easy to believe in. He has hit 100 miles per hour with his fastball and has the kind of athletic frame that suggests he could easily repeat his delivery and work deep into games.
Yet with all that power, Kelly has averaged a modest 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings as a starter and completed seven or more innings only nine times.
The Red Sox became frustrated enough to send Kelly to the minors for what amounted to three months last season. They told him then he was a relief pitcher, and maybe this time it will stick.
“When they tell you that in the minors, you tend to believe it,” Kelly said Wednesday after throwing a scoreless inning against the Baltimore Orioles in a 12-5 loss.
“They said I was a reliever and that was it. Maybe it’s a good thing.”
When Kelly was recalled last September, he appeared in 11 games out of the bullpen and allowed one run on nine hits over 14 innings and struck out 20 with three walks.
Kelly pitched his way onto the playoff roster and was perfect over three appearances and 3⅔ innings against the Cleveland Indians.
Now, for the first time since college, he’ll see how the role fits for an entire season.
“I felt better as a pitcher than I have in a while last September. But haven’t done it for a whole year yet,” Kelly said. “It’s obviously going to be a test. Not the innings but the number of appearances.
“I know I can handle it body-wise. I’ll probably go above and beyond what most guys do as relievers to stay fresh.”
Sox manager John Farrell is wrestling with how best to use Kelly. The Sox have Craig Kimbrel to close and Tyler Thornburg for the eighth inning. Kelly could fit in the seventh inning or take on a hybrid role that would include multi-inning stints.
“It’s likely he finds himself in some of those spots,” Farrell said. “We’re deeper in terms of guys in our bullpen with above-average stuff in terms of at least velocity.”
The idea of using Kelly as a shutdown reliever over two innings has appeal. But so does the lure of using him more often.
“With Joe, as I see it with the makeup of our bullpen, that will always be the balance with him,” Farrell said.
Whatever the role, Farrell is convinced Kelly should relieve and put starting in the past.
“It goes back to understanding how the pitcher best operates. With Joe, in my view, it has always been the effort and energy related in his delivery,” the manager said.
“When he’s been under control he’s been able to command the baseball more. My view of Joe is he’s a great athlete who loves to compete. I think he’s wired best to be a possibility to pitch every night versus sitting for four days and waiting for that fifth day to start.”
Kelly has fought that label in the past, insisting even when he was in the bullpen that he could start. Farrell, a former pitcher, understands that. Starters have a greater profile in the game and make more money. It’s an easier life, pitching every five days.
Starters can play golf during the season. Relievers take naps. For Kelly, it will take some getting used to.
“I like getting put out there,” he said. “I love pitching as much as I can and being in the game late. The atmosphere is different and the crowd is into it.
“I did in college. It was the first thing I learned how to do. It’s rehashing good memories for me. It was fun and I loved the adrenaline.”
Kelly still seems to have reservations about the idea, though.
“I haven’t been told where I fit. Wherever, I guess,” he said. “It’s something I’ll pick up. I’ll be ready any time after the fifth inning I guess. I don’t know exactly.”
Kelly also is concerned about how 50 or more appearances will affect his arm. He’s never had more than 37 in a major league season.
“I have to be more vocal about how I feel,” he said. “Communication is huge. If I’m not feeling it, I shouldn’t pitch. Otherwise you get tired and you start sucking and getting hurt. I’ll see how it goes.”