Over at ESPN yesterday, I did the NLCS preview, and my “key stat” was “76.5 percent,” which is how many times Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke combined to allow two runs or fewer this year. But as I noted, that’s not even telling the full story of how they’re pitching right now, because that includes Greinke’s sometimes-rough starts when he returned from that broken collarbone. Over their last 24 starts, including playoffs, the duo has allowed two or fewer earned runs… 23 times.
That puts the Cardinals at a bit of a disadvantage, especially with St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright unavailable until Game 3, and rookie sensation Michael Wacha scheduled for Game 2. So for tonight’s Game 1, the Cardinals had to choose between Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Joe Kelly to battle Greinke. I might have gone Miller, and some Cardinals fans agreed. Instead, the team chose Kelly.
At this point, you might be asking… who? Kelly is a 25-year-old California native who made his debut for the Cardinals last year, splitting his time so far between the rotation and the bullpen. He didn’t win a rotation job out of camp and made only one start this year before July, at one point appearing in 10 consecutive losses out of the bullpen (a run which can’t be entirely attributed to him, of course.) In a stretch of 14 starts after that, he limited opponents to just a 2.32 ERA.
So Kelly can keep runs off the board, but while he’s your typical four-pitch starter (fastball / curve / slider / change) and can touch the mid-90s, he’s like something out of the 1950s otherwise. In 124 innings this year, he struck out only 5.7 per nine. Of the 128 pitchers who threw at least 120 innings, Kelly’s K/9 was 14th from the bottom, and the guys worse than him aren’t pretty. There’s Bartolo Colon, sure, but there’s also Joe Saunders and Dylan Axelrod and Scott Diamond.
As you’d expect, Kelly gets by on grounders (51.4% career) and limiting homers (just five in 15 starts), but not so much by impeccable control — just a 46/34 K/BB as a starter. He’s been successful, obviously, just not in the way you’d expect.
When that’s the kind of pitcher who gets a Game 1 start, there’s a lot of discussion about it, ranging from the near-saccharine…
Kelly’s understanding of the team concept — taking his lumps and working hard at whatever role the club asked of him — and his knack for pouncing on the opportunity to shine once it was presented to him embodies what this Cardinals team has done in reaching the postseason and advancing to a third consecutive NLCS.
“Joe’s earned this,” Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny said on Thursday’s workout day at Busch Stadium. “He started off this season, and I’ve said it many times, he showed us so much and earned our respect coming out of Spring Training in a fight for that fifth spot. Nothing that he did not do, but it worked out where he was going to be working out of the ‘pen and getting very few opportunities.
“But when he did get the opportunities, he made the most of them and continued to come in here regardless of what his role was and tried to figure out how to help our team win.”
…to the terrified analytic Cardinals fan:
Kelly induces swinging strikes at a below average rate. Kelly strikes out opposing batters at a below average rate. Kelly walks opposing batters at an above average rate. Yet somehow he has managed to strand opposing runners at a rate nearly ten percentage points higher than average and his ERA is 1.17 below average. The last two are inextricably intertwined. Neither are likely to continue. The question is not if Kelly can keep up his current levels of run suppression but for much longer can it continue. Three innings? Five? Seven? Twenty?
All of this is why I don’t understand why St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny elected to start Joe Kelly in NLCS Game 1. On Thursday, Matheny said Kelly “earned” the spot by making the most out of his opportunities. While the clichés of coachspeak are often nothing more than bull roar, Matheny’s claims that Kelly’s lucky run to date “earned” him a start in NLCS Game 1 rings particularly hollow, for the big leagues are not a luckocracy.
All of which makes Kelly so difficult to predict, and makes Game 1 all the more important. The Dodgers should beat up on a guy who doesn’t miss bats and has a 2.71 BABIP as a starter, but they should have beaten up on Freddy Garcia, too, and that didn’t really happen. Nonetheless, Kelly’s performance is so crucial here for both teams. If the Dodgers win, they’ve broken home field advantage and put the Cardinals in a hole headed into a Kershaw start. If they can’t solve Kelly, then they’ve wasted one of their four “ace” starts on a team where suddenly no one has any confidence in the third and fourth starters.
The Dodgers have the pitching advantage in Game 1, and in probably all four games that Kershaw and Greinke pitch. But I’ll tell you this — if they want to win, they need to do it in six, because I don’t think any of us want to see a Game 7 in St. Louis with the great Wainwright facing Hyun-jin Ryu or Ricky Nolasco. That’s not going to end well.