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On the Prospects of a Joe Kelly Reunion

Avoiding spending big on relievers is the one rule the Cardinals shouldn’t break. But if they do, Joe Kelly is a pretty good way to do it.

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St. Louis Cardinals vs Boston Red Sox, 2013 World Series Set Number: X157125 TK1 R1 F28

We’re still on hold while baseball’s lockout continues. That will likely be true until at least January. The St. Louis Cardinals had shifted their focus before the lockdown from starting pitching to relief pitching, with some offers out. One of those offers was almost certainly to Luis Garcia, the second half revelation that helped key their second half surge. He opted to sign with the Padres. There’s no way of knowing who else they were discussing but Derrick Goold name-dropped Ryan Tepera in his Steven Matz article and mentioned Colin McHugh as a potential fit in his tweet about said article. People have speculated about other names- Archie Bradley comes to mind- but there was another name we’re all familiar with in the Goold article. Verbatim:

Former Cardinal Joe Kelly also is a free agent who has several traits the Cardinals seek.

That’s interesting, man. That’s interesting. (obligatory Lebowski reference)

First, let’s evaluate what the Cardinals currently have for bullpen options for 2022 on their 40-man roster.

RHP: Giovanny Gallegos, Alex Reyes, Jordan Hicks, Kodi Whitley, Ryan Helsley
Depth RHP/Long Relief: Jake Woodford, Junior Fernandez, Angel Rondon... then a step down to Jake Walsh, Freddy Pacheco, and Johan Quezada, and T.J. Zeuch. Johan Oviedo could also see time out of the bullpen.
LHP: Genesis Cabrera, T.J. McFarland, Brandon Waddell
Depth LHP: Connor Thomas? Matthew Liberatore? I’m honestly not sure.

That’s a healthy amount of depth, but Reyes and Hicks come with question marks. They could sure use more options.

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as “certainty” when it comes to relievers. It’s been discussed on VEB many times, especially by Ben Godar- the king of the “Stop Spending Big Money on Relievers” movement. Chasing certainty from relievers with big dollars has been disastrous for the Cardinals (Brett Cecil, Andrew Miller, Greg Holland, and Luke Gregerson), and other teams around MLB. The 2021 season reinforced the notion of gambling on low cost options, with McFarland and Garcia costing almost nothing and basically rescuing the season. Whatever you think of a Joe Kelly signing, wild variance in reliever performance has to be part of the equation.

NLCS: LA Dodgers vs. Atlanta Braves Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Recent Years

Kelly himself has been a perfect example of reliever variance and the perils- and benefits!- of reliever contracts. He signed with the Dodgers after the 2018 season for 3 years and $25M, with a (now declined) $12M option for 2022. Here’s how it went:

2019: He had a rocky 4.56 ERA but a more respectable 3.78 FIP. He got off to an awful start- a 7.59 ERA as late as June 10th- but recovered for a 2.40 ERA (2.78 FIP) the rest of the way. His WPA on the season was -0.72, bottom quartile for relievers. The season ended with him giving up a pivotal grand slam to Howie Kendrick in the 10th inning of a winner-take-all NLDS game. Coupled with his contract, it did not endear him to Dodger fans.

2020: Obviously a weird year for everyone, he logged 10 innings with a 1.80 ERA. It’s not even worth inferring anything here, though he did perform fine in the 2020 post-season en route to a World Series title.

2021: Kelly was very good with a 2.86 ERA (3.07 FIP) and a 1.67 WPA in the upper quartile of the league among relievers. His K-BB% was just outside the upper quartile for relievers and his GB% was 12th best. He wasn’t one of the very best relievers in 2021, but he was very good.

That’s one very good season, one bad one (with some high points), and one pandemic season. His WPA and WPA/LI over the life of the deal was right around the middle or a little bit better. His GB% was 8th best- a tick behind T.J. McFarland (!)- and his FIP was 38th best out of 190. If you want to be kind and strip out the beginning of 2019 (through June 10th), he jumps all the way up to 25th in FIP, 29th in WPA, and 42nd in WPA/LI. Despite a messy 2019, he provided pretty good value on the deal.

One of the quandaries is that Kelly’s season ended with him departing game 5 of the NLCS with a right biceps strain. There was initial concern over it but his doctor has since refuted it. Possibly because of it, though, the Dodgers declined his option. They maintain interest in bringing him back, but didn’t want to commit to $12M to do it. It’s worth noting that while Kelly has ties to the Cardinals, he’s a Los Angeles area native. Southern California is his home.

FanGraphs crowdsourcing predicts 2 years and $7M AAV for Kelly, but they’ve generally been on the short side with most contracts so far. Their predictions have been anywhere from 60 to 80% of the actual AAV that most relievers have gotten, which would put Kelly somewhere in the $9-10M AAV range... if his market isn’t suppressed by concerns over the injury.

What of the Cardinals?

Combine the prospect of Kelly earning $9-10M per year over two years with the Cardinals’ recent disasters on the free agent market and most of you are understandably ready to hit the eject button on the idea of him coming back to St. Louis. However, it’s not that simple. For instance, $9-10M AAV would be right in between the top end of the failures (Andrew Miller, $11.5M AAV and Greg Holland, 1 year/$14M) and the low end (Brett Cecil, $7.6M AAV for four years and Luke Gregerson, $5.5M AAV). And if the crowdsource ends up being right, he’s close to Cecil... but from the right side.

More importantly, Kelly’s stuff hasn’t been declining. Gregerson’s velocity had slipped and his peripherals cratered the year before. The same was true for Andrew Miller, so much so that I wrote about it the day of the signing. Holland had shown significant red flags for most of the second half of 2017. Cecil is the outlier- his prior season was quite solid, albeit not worthy of four years for a reliever. The point stands, though. Three of the four failures have been about ignoring recent trends. That’s not a problem for Kelly.

In fact, the impetus behind this article was seeing Kelly’s name appear twice recently in articles about the best individual pitches in the game. Driveline put out a Stuff+ explainer where they referred to Kelly’s curveball as “wizardry”. Seriously, check this out:

The Driveline piece also references the extra queso on his sinker. Eno Sarris, writing about Stuff+ again, cited Kelly’s 2021 curveball with a 131 Stuff+ score, ninth best in all of baseball. The Stuff+ score for his overall repertoire comes in at 108.1. Had he done that as a Cardinal, the only teammate with a better Stuff+ would have been Giovanny Gallegos (112.4), with Adam Wainwright (106.3) just a little behind.

Some other names mentioned as Cardinal targets are much lower. Tepera comes in at 101.1, Archie Bradley is 91.4. In fairness, McHugh beats Kelly at 114.1 with better command than all of them. Of course, McHugh doesn’t endear himself to fans the way Kelly did when he was a Cardinal, with the Red Sox, or as a Dodger. Seriously, he’s on a short list with guys like Steve Kline for most fun Cardinals in my lifetime.

He also has traits the Cardinals crave, as Goold mentioned. He racks up groundballs as well as any reliever. He’s athletic and boasts a power sinker. And of course, he’s familiar with the Cardinals.

It’s still advisable for the Cardinals to avoid the top end of the relief pitching market. But if they break what should be their one rule, Joe Kelly is as good a way to spend that money as any.