On July 31, 2014, the Red Sox were 48-60 and had just finished the process of unloading 80% of their rotation through trades. The Red Sox were looking for valuable major league assets in return, not wanting to embark on a full rebuild only a year after winning the World Series. For Jon Lester they received Yoenis Cespedes, and for John Lackey they received Joe Kelly and Allen Craig from the St. Louis Cardinals. Allen Craig was a lottery ticket for the Red Sox, with hope that he could bounce back to his 2013 form; instead he spent most of 2015 and all of 2016 in minors. In his most recent trip to AAA Craig batted .173 and is not looking like he will contribute in the major leagues again. In the same period of time Joe Kelly failed to materialize as a successful starter for the Red Sox, but in the last months of the 2016 season, emerged as one of the most intriguing question marks in Boston’s bullpen.

Through the end of 2014 Joe Kelly pitched 61.1 innings for the Red Sox and put up an ERA of 4.11 with a FIP of 4.62. Then in 2015, the same season Kelly predicted he would win the Cy Young Award, he pitched a career high 134.1 innings with a ERA of 4.82 and a FIP of 4.18. In 2016 Joe Kelly began as the Red Sox third starter and through two major league stints and six starts, pitched 22.1 innings with an ERA 8.46 and an opponent OPS over 1.000.

His continued presence in the big-league clubhouse during this period are both a testament to how lackluster the Red Sox rotation was and the potential that Joe Kelly seemed to possess. He could touch 99 MPH with his fastball and with a good secondary repertoire of a curveball, slider and changeup. His potential was obvious, and Kelly would have an occasional start in which he looked tantalizingly close to figuring it all out. In 2015 Eno Sarris of FanGraphs wrote how Joe Kelly was only one adjustment away from greatness… again. But by the time Kelly’s ugly start to 2016 reared its head, it seemed as if most had given up hope on Joe Kelly’s potential.

However, the Red Sox had not given up on Joe Kelly, and in July gave him another chance, this time in the injury-stricken Boston bullpen. He had three appearances there before Craig Kimbrel came off the DL, bumping Kelly back to AAA. While the Red Sox September spotlight was focused firmly on the call-up of Yoan Moncada, Kelly found himself called back up to the bullpen, where his numbers resembled nothing of Joe Kelly the starter. From his first relief appearance to the end of the season, Kelly pitched 17.2 innings, struck out 21, walked 5, and had an ERA of 1.02. In the Red Sox’ brief postseason appearance he threw 3.2 innings, retiring every batter he faced, three via the strikeout.

This sudden change wasn’t wholly unexpected, as starters getting moved to the bullpen don’t have to worry about pacing themselves as much, making a velocity spike almost expected. Kelly exhibited this trait, and during one of his relief outings hit a new high of 100.5 MPH on his fastball, and his average velocity saw a noticeable uptick after the move to the bullpen. Joe Kelly may also have been better suited than most starters for the move to the bullpen, as Baseball Info Solutions’ Scott Spratt identified that Kelly exhibits one of the largest gaps in performance between the first time facing the batting order and the second.

So where does this leave Joe Kelly for the 2016 season? The Red Sox look to have a strong bullpen with Kimbrel and the newly acquired Tyler Thornburg taking the roles of closer and set-up man. Carson Smith should also make a return from Tommy John surgery by the All-Star break. So Kelly will most likely be starting the season having to compete for innings with Matt Barnes, Robbie Ross Jr., Heath Hembree, and last year’s late season call-up Robby Scott. However, if Kelly can continue the success he found in the bullpen in 2016, he has the potential to rise to the top of Boston’s list of middle relief options, in a market where effective relief pitchers command a higher price than ever.

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