As the All-Star break approaches, Joe Kelly has been one of the most effective relievers in the American League, his ERA second only to teammate Craig Kimbrel's. And yet, the Boston coaching staff remains in a holding pattern in terms of Kelly's usage, limiting the flexibility of the club's bullpen.
The Red Sox didn’t have to use their bullpen all that much over the weekend in Toronto.
Most significant, the Red Sox didn’t have to use Joe Kelly at all.
As the All-Star break approaches, Kelly has been one of the most effective relievers in the American League, his ERA second only to teammate Craig Kimbrel's. And yet, the Boston coaching staff remains in a holding pattern in terms of Kelly's usage, limiting the flexibility of the club's bullpen.
As-yet-undisclosed physical limitations have dissuaded Boston manager John Farrell from pitching Kelly on back-to-back days — generally a prerequisite for a middle reliever — except on the rarest of occasions. The last time Kelly pitched on a second straight day was a month ago, and he’d thrown all of two pitches in the front end of that back-to-back.
“It’s really just trying to take care of him,” Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis said. “It’s about getting feedback from him. It’s communication. The only way these things get resolved is when you can give a guy a little additional rest and they get over the top. It’s just a matter of managing his work.”
Kelly made 25 starts for the Red Sox in 2015 and then six as part of the Opening Day rotation out of spring training before injuries and ineffectiveness prompted the Boston brass to make him a reliever for good. He pitched exceptionally well in September and October a year ago, retiring all 11 hitters he faced in the ALDS against Cleveland. He looked like a potentially dominant late-inning reliever.
But Kelly was erratic in spring training and in early April, prompting Boston manager John Farrell to drop him down the depth chart.
Kelly has pitched his way back into the good graces of his manager of late, with Farrell naming him his eighth-inning man last week — on the days Kelly is available to pitch. Kelly still, however, isn’t pitching on consecutive days the way a typical late-inning reliever does. All-Star closer Kimbrel, for example, has pitched on back-to-back days nine times and on one day’s rest eight other times.
By contrast, of the 32 appearances Kelly has made so far this season, nine have come on three or four days’ rest — rest more reminiscent of the starting pitcher he once was than the reliever he now is. His next appearance likewise will come on at least three days’ rest. He’ll pitch on extended rest again immediately after the All-Star break.
Of the four earned runs Kelly has allowed this season, two came in an April appearance when he’d thrown 14 pitches the previous day. The other two runs came when he was pitching on one day’s rest.
The Red Sox straddled this line late last season with Koji Uehara, who after returning from the disabled list in September served as the primary set-up man despite not pitching on consecutive days. It remains far from ideal, though, placing a larger burden on the right arms of both Matt Barnes and Heath Hembree.
There’s no sign yet that the Red Sox are getting close to being able to use Kelly in back-to-back games.
“That’s the way we’ll go about it until the days following when he is in a game he’s feeling better,” Farrell said last week. “I can’t say that would be before the break, where he’s got a few days to maybe take advantage of the downtime.”
"It's just one of those things where it's probably best to get to the All-Star break and then, in the second half, get ready to go every day," said Kelly. "I feel good. It's just something that we put a little plan together, and it's working so far. We're trying to stick to it as best we can."
Willis declined to go into specifics about what is ailing Kelly. Farrell said only that Kelly undergoes strength tests as part of his treatment work and that “he’s gaining on the second day, how he’s felt coming out of outings.”
All parties involved remain optimistic that Kelly will be able to pitch in back-to-back games at some point in the second half of this season. The absence of Tyler Thornburg and the ongoing uncertainty surrounding Carson Smith makes it almost imperative he be able to do so.
“No doubt,” Willis said.
"My body feels strong," said Kelly. "Obviously the workload is different, but I'm trying to keep it as close as I can to being ready to pitch every day. It's just something I've kind of had to learn on the fly."