What Joe Kelly's role looks like in the St. Louis Cardinals' medium term

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

For the second year in a row, Joe Kelly has exceeded the Cardinals' expectations when they needed him to.

After Friday's win, Joe Kelly has now thrown 208 major league innings with an ERA of 3.15 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.91. Yes, that is weird. Here's how weird it is, among pitchers who've thrown at least 150 innings in the last two years:

Rk Player ERA+ SO/BB IP G W L H R ER BB SO ERA HR
1 Jhoulys Chacin 128 1.91 245.1 41 16 13 242 101 96 82 157 3.52 17
2 Hector Santiago 128 1.98 204.0 73 8 9 172 87 77 105 208 3.40 25
3 Jorge De La Rosa 122 1.92 176.1 32 16 8 183 80 72 61 117 3.67 15
4 Joe Kelly 119 1.91 208.2 57 13 10 216 82 73 75 143 3.15 19
5 Jacob Turner 112 1.63 158.2 27 5 10 145 74 63 62 101 3.57 16
6 Tyler Chatwood 108 1.58 152.1 35 12 10 169 79 71 64 101 4.19 14
7 Nathan Eovaldi 101 1.76 204.0 36 7 18 210 94 89 79 139 3.93 15
8 Sam Deduno 101 1.32 187.0 33 14 13 174 88 85 94 124 4.09 17
9 Jeff Locke 100 1.69 182.2 34 10 7 166 77 74 85 144 3.65 15
10 Trevor Cahill 99 1.94 324.0 54 19 22 309 155 144 126 244 4.00 29

That list doesn't paralyze me with fear, exactly, but it's instructive, I think, that most of these guys have careers that look a lot like Joe Kelly's—two or three years, total, as not-quite-full-fledged members of a rotation. Trevor Cahill is the one who's been around the longest—he's made 30 starts four times and has 21 this year, with a career high K:BB ratio of 2.11.

As a pitcher, though, he and Joe Kelly don't have a lot in common. Cahill's fastball averages 89 miles per hour; Joe Kelly averages 95, and throws it significantly more often. Trevor Cahill had impressive peripherals in his brief minor league engagement; Joe Kelly was there for a while and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio that hovered around two.

As a result, he has that FanGraphs WAR/Baseball-Reference WAR we've been talking about for a while now: 1.1 in a full season vs. 3.3 for Baseball-Reference.

I don't think Joe Kelly will continue to be as effective as he has this year, and in spite of his great stuff it's hard to see the shape of his peripherals changing drastically 500 innings into his professional career. But even his below-average 1 WAR version has been particularly valuable to the Cardinals this year, which is good news for those of us who've grown accustomed to his baserunning.

The strange look of his career, though, is directly related to that value—the Cardinals haven't used him like 3 WAR pitcher, they've used him like a 1 WAR pitcher who happens to have not lost a decision since the middle of June. A pitcher with Joe Kelly will always start out behind a pitcher like Jaime Garcia, but he'll usually end up in the mix somewhere.

Which is why the whole Ferrari-in-the-garage thing has been so strange. Joe Kelly is the kind of car you want to be able to put in the garage without changing all the fluids and charging the battery once a month; his value is largely dependent on his ability to sit there and wait for the guys who project out to be two-WAR starters to get hurt or grow ineffective. I'm glad he's been going so fast this year, but I hope he can settle into being a really nice Honda Accord in the garage.

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