What Joe Kelly’s exit means for the Red Sox’ approach in the reliever market

Joe Kelly posted a 0.79 ERA in nine postseason appearances in 2018.
Joe Kelly posted a 0.79 ERA in nine postseason appearances in 2018. (Barry Chin//Globe Staff)

LAS VEGAS — A key member of the Red Sox’ World Series run is heading to the team that he helped defeat. Late on Wednesday night at the Winter Meetings, reports emerged that Joe Kelly was nearing agreement with the Dodgers on a three-year, $25 million deal. The contract concludes the tenure of a pitcher whose performance in Boston was mercurial in the regular season and dominant in three playoff runs.

In 73 games in 2018, Kelly went 4-2 with a 4.39 ERA while striking out 9.3 batters and walking 4.4 batters per nine innings. That performance wasn’t far off of his numbers over parts of five seasons with the Red Sox (4.33 ERA, 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings, 4.1 walks per nine) after the team landed him (along with first baseman/outfielder Allen Craig) in exchange for John Lackey at the 2014 trade deadline.


Kelly’s stuff was always unquestioned. He features a fastball that tops out in the triple digits, along with a changeup and slider that can elicit swings and misses. Yet his unwillingness at times to trust his full repertoire contributed to inconsistent performances. (Over a sustained period from June through September this season, he stopped using his changeup, particularly against righthanded hitters, thus allowing hitters to sit on his fastball.) That pattern was particularly dramatic this year, when Kelly had a 1.73 ERA through the end of May before seeing that mark soar to 6.13 in 48 appearances from June through the end of the season.

But late in the year, manager Alex Cora and pitching coach Dana LeVangie sat down with Kelly and identified that he was tipping pitches and convinced him that he needed to throw more changeups. The intervention proved well-timed, as Kelly was outstanding in the postseason, posting a 0.79 ERA in nine appearances, including six shutout innings with 10 strikeouts against the Dodgers in the World Series.


That performance — on top of his memorable fight with then-Yankees first baseman Tyler Austin on April 11 — will connect Kelly memorably to the Red Sox’ championship run of 2018.

But although the Red Sox checked in with Kelly’s agents, Seth and Sam Levinson (who negotiated Nathan Eovaldi’s four-year deal with the Sox), throughout the offseason, committing $68 million to Eovaldi made a reunion with Kelly unlikely.

According to a major league source, the Red Sox entered the offseason with a flexible plan while looking to bolster two areas. Either the team would make a substantial commitment to a starter (with Eovaldi at the top of the list) while exploring relatively modest expenditures on its bullpen, or it would look to add a back-of-the-rotation/starting depth option at a relatively low salary while looking to spend aggressively on the bullpen. With Eovaldi re-signing, the team was committed to the former approach — thus all but ruling out a return of Craig Kimbrel as well as Kelly, whose electric arsenal created a robust market for his services.

The loss of Kelly — and likely Kimbrel — does leave the Red Sox in a position where they’ll have to search for additional late-innings help. Yet multiple sources continue to suggest that the Red Sox aren’t in a rush in search of replacements, instead preferring to wait out the market and to see where there might be opportunities to strike relatively low-cost deals with one of as many as nine closing options on the market.


Even so, the departure of Kelly confirms what had been obvious: Even with the returns of free agents Steve Pearce and Eovaldi, the Red Sox were never going to return their historic 108-win team precisely intact.

Alex Speier can be reached at Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.