Are you overshadowed by a rock-star colleague? Maybe you’re great at your job, but this person occupies a similar role and is amazing at theirs. This super-you exceeds expectations on every project, perpetually radiates serenity, and never burns popcorn in the office microwave. In actual talent level you’re not far behind this person, but in management’s eyes you don’t measure up. You’re employed, sure, but constantly feeling overlooked.
Shawn Kelley knows how you feel. For years, his managers overlooked him when they called for a closer. After spending four years in Seattle behind David Aardsma, Brandon League, and Tom Wilhelmsen, Kelley landed with the Yankees in 2013. Would he close games? Well, Mariano Rivera was not only the Yankees’ closer, but also their legend riding off into the sunset. And in 2014 it was David Robertson’s turn in the ninth.
After the Yankees traded Kelley to the Padres, Eno Sarris argued that he could close games. But A.J. Preller disagreed. One day before the season started, he acquired Craig Kimbrel. When Kelley signed with the Nationals prior to 2016, Jonathan Papelbon was the closer. When he wore out his welcome, Mark Melancon filled the role.
Kelley has been toiling in obscurity for his whole career, but 2017 may finally represent his first opportunity to shine. He’s the leading candidate to close games in D.C. I’m here to tell these folks and Nationals fans: it’s okay to get excited at the prospect of Shawn Kelley, Nationals closer.
Now 32, Kelley isn’t at the ideal juncture on the age curve. After two Tommy John surgeries, he’s also got some mileage on his arm. Plus his fastball hovers in the 93 mph range. These days, a closer who doesn’t throw 95 or higher better have a trick pitch to catch their manager’s attention.
But last year Kelley considerably improved his already strong command of the strike zone. His K-BB% in 2016 was 300% of the average relief pitcher’s. Since 2013, he’s walked fewer and fewer batters each year. This trend offsets the slight decline in his strikeout rate. Suddenly, in 2016, his walk rate dropped precipitously even as he pushed his strikeout rate to the highest of his career.
The following graphs document these trends:
How’d he do it? Kelley cut his walk rate by working in the strike zone more frequently:
Batters predictably swung at more of his pitches than ever:
Yet Kelley’s swinging-strike rate was the highest of his career:
So: Kelley fooled batters more often than ever. If they took a pitch in 2016, odds are it was going to be in the zone and thus a strike. If they swung, they were more likely than ever to miss. Batters were doomed — or, to twist it slightly, damned if they did (swing) and damned if they didn’t (swing).
Although Kelley’s slider is his swing-and-miss pitch, his fastball was responsible for the increase in strikeouts. Not the black line in the graph below. That’s the whiff rate per swing on the four-seamer. It’s increased nearly 10 points over the past two years.
What did Kelley do differently? Compare where he located his fastball in 2015 …
… to where he located it in 2016:
Kelley brought the high heat and batters failed to adjust. The following heat map shows they often missed Kelley’s high fastballs:
As you’d expect, Kelley’s fly-ball rate increased dramatically from 2015:
Kelley became the Jered Weaver of relievers, if Weaver threw 10 mph harder and effected twice as many swinging strikes. Statcast confirms Kelley’s fly-ball tendencies: his average launch angle jumped from 10.9 degrees in 2015 (ranked 160th in MLB) to 18.9 degrees in 2016 (ranked eighth). This focus on high heat and fly balls drove his BABIP down to .258 and supported a high 83.8% strand rate.
Finally, Kelley is equally effective against both righties and lefties. He’s held the former to a 3.46 xFIP while holding the latter to a 3.48 xFIP.
Can Kelley close games in 2017? The evidence shows he can. Even if batters adjust to his high fastball in 2017, his strong track record of a great K-BB% indicates he controls the strike zone well. Is he Mariano Rivera? No. Aroldis Chapman? No. Really good relief pitcher? Absolutely.
Thus might the era of Shawn Kelley, Perpetually Overlooked Reliever, end. The Nationals have a strong team and are again the favorites for the NL East title. Right now, Kelley’s their guy. If he continues to be, he’ll get plenty of time in the spotlight, locking down the ninth inning night after night.