Entering Tuesday night, opposing hitters had swung and missed at Joe Kelly’s changeup 82 percent of the time.
Last season, he barely threw the pitch, at about 2 percent. Now, per BrooksBaseball.net, Kelly’s using the change more than 9 percent of the time.
Carson Smith’s shoulder injury creates obvious “next-man-up” scenario for the Red Sox bullpen, just as any injury to a significant player would. It's likely that no matter how excellent Kelly or Matt Barnes or Heath Hembree are going forward, the Sox will need to add a reliever midseason if they want to make a deep run into the postseason.
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There's also the Red Sox debut of right-handed reliever Tyler Thornburg, who has been rehabbing at Pawtucket, on the horizon.
Nonetheless, with Smith down, there are opportunities for Barnes, Kelly and Hembree to not only step up into bigger roles, but perhaps to evolve stylistically as well. Just a tad.
Smith was a sinker-slider pitcher. Kelly, Barnes and Hembree rely more on power fastballs. Outs are outs and remain the bottom line, but part of what made Smith appealing was that different look he offered.
“It’s awful what happened, really,” Barnes said recently. “We’re all praying for him and hoping that it’s not too bad that he can come back and do fine . . . It definitely hurts. He was throwing really well the last month. He was a guy who’s dominant against righties and adds a different feel than the other righties we have in the bullpen. We got a good group down there. We’re fortunate that we have some depth: guys that have pitched in a lot of different roles over the years and are really comfortable in any role.”
Indeed, over the winter, Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski pointed to Smith as something of a separator amongst his righty relievers. None of the Sox relievers should change just for the sake of it. Their effectiveness is what matters most.
Kelly, though, might be most effective if he transitions a little. His stuff might allow the most wiggle room and he's very willing to experiment, be it with timing mechanisms or otherwise.
One of the perplexing things about Kelly has been how hard he throws and how few swings and misses his high-90s (and sometimes triple-digit) fastballs garner. Enter the changeup, as well as his slider and curveball. Kelly’s not throwing his breaking balls more than he used to overall, but they’re both creating more swings and misses in 2018.
There hasn’t been an uptick in ground balls, as one would expect with a sinkerballer such as Smith. Still, as Kelly’s secondary stuff seems to take on better life, his identity need not be wrapped up so much in that fastball and whether or not it gains swings and misses.
As they move on without Smith, Sox relievers are comfortable in varied roles.
"It’s based on the conversations we have with [pitching coach Dana Levangie]," Barnes said of usage. "If you look at kind of the way things have played out the last three weeks to a month, we have an idea when I'm going to pitch based on the lineup, innings, scores of games. So, in a sense, we might not be the typical, old-fashioned [build where] you have your set eighth inning, you have your set seventh inning, and that kind of role. But there is definitely a role that we kind of each understand."
From there, if one of them can distinguish themselves slightly in terms of approach — Kelly seems the best candidate — a little variation could go a long way.