The Dodgers’ bullpen problems last year were serious enough that they nearly derailed the season. They would have lost the NL West if the Giants had managed to win just one lousy game in that final series. So, to fix that problem, the Dodgers signed Joe Kelly to a three-year, $25 million contract.
It was an uncharacteristic signing for Los Angeles. Despite their unlimited resources, they’ve been averse to signing relievers, players over 30, and guys who maybe haven’t been all that good. Kelly is all three, but he was excellent immediately before the Dodgers signed him.
In the 2018 World Series, Joe Kelly struck out 10 Dodgers in six innings of work. He didn’t walk anyone, and he only gave up four hits. He wasn’t the sole reason the Dodgers failed to win their first championship in 30 years, but he dominated the Los Angeles bats like no other pitcher could.
Even without Farhan Zaidi, the Dodgers front office is smart enough not to seriously look at a reliever’s performance over a week of games as a showing of their talent, but Kelly’s World Series was probably a consideration even if just subconsciously. Watching Kelly mow through a team that led the majors in non-pitcher wRC+ might have prompted Andrew Friedman and co. to take another look at Kelly.
Looking at Kelly’s pitch selection, it appears that the Dodgers had a plan to weaponize Kelly. He’s gone away from the sinker and the slider almost entirely, and instead he’s throwing more changeups and four seamers. Kelly, like a lot of other pitchers, diminished the use of his sinker last year. It might have been his own decision but it’s likely that the Dodgers were the ones to say stop using the slider and throw the change up more often.
Someone wanted Kelly to simplify and become a three-pitch pitcher. Regardless of whose idea this was, it isn’t working. The changeup that was so good at inducing swinging strikes last year hasn’t been nearly as effective. He’s been hanging his curves over the middle of the zone. Hitters have been all over the four seamer.
We’re a month into the signing, but it already looks like a mistake for the Dodgers. In 13 1/3 innings, Kelly has given up 15 runs and 23 hits. On Saturday, he almost cost the Dodgers another game when he gave up three runs while only retiring one batter. We’re still in the part of the year where one bad outing can tank a reliever’s ERA, but Kelly has a 10.13 ERA after 13 appearances.
It’s still too early to see how the departure of Farhan Zaidi will affect the Dodgers. But consider that Zaidi went out and got Nick Vincent, Trevor Gott, Travis Bergen, and even Fernando Abad for nothing and they’ve all been pretty good. Meanwhile, the Dodgers got Joe Kelly for three years and $25 million and that was it. Kelly has never thrown a pitch in a Giants uniform, but I submit that he becomes an honorary #ForeverGiant for his efforts to keep the Dodgers from winning baseball games.