Joe Kelly was a different pitcher in his second year with the Dodgers than he was in his first year with them. He was at least nominally effective while on the mound, but his 2020 was most memorable for a pair of emotional moments.
What Kelly’s 2020 will be remembered for was for his throwing a fastball near Alex Bregman’s head on July 28 in Houston, in the first Dodgers game against the Astros after details of Houston’s cheating during 2017 came to light in January.
“This is something that’s been built up over the course of seven months,” manager Dave Roberts said after the game.
Kelly’s gesture, and his subsequent dismissive sneer at Carlos Correa, was so well received and cathartic for many Dodgers fans that the incident was immortalized in a mural in Los Angeles.
Kelly was initially suspended eight games for his actions, a punishment decried by so many as too harsh. Even the final, reduced five-game ban was far and away above similar incidents — Aroldis Chapman, like Kelly a repeat offender, saw his three-game suspension for throwing at Mike Brosseau’s head reduced to two games, for instance — but was MLB’s way of wanting to make sure players didn’t take the league’s perceived lack of Astros justice into their own hands.
During the regular season Kelly was inactive for more games than he was active, first missing 28 games on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation, then serving his five-game suspension.
When he was on the mound, Kelly pitched in 17 games, counting both the regular season and postseason, and allowed no runs in 15 of them, for a combined 1.98 ERA. That’s good.
Kelly also had nearly as many walks (nine) as strikeouts (12), and threw a strike in only 58.5 percent of his pitches during the regular season, the lowest mark on the team, ranking 461st out of 490 major leaguers who threw at least 10 innings in 2020. That’s bad, even when considering the boilerplate defense of “Kelly doesn’t even know where the ball is going” that was used in defense of his, um, wildness against the Astros.
Kelly changed his pitch mix in 2020, throwing his curve 63.2 percent of the time, up from 36.5 in 2019. Against left-handed batters during the regular season, Kelly threw 53 curves in his 62 pitches (85.4 percent).
Stats: 1.80 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 10 IP, 9 strikeouts
Salary: $8.5 million
Game of the year
Kelly was used in mostly low-leverage situations in October, entering three of his final four outings while trailing by at least two runs, with the Dodgers up by five in his other game. But it was Kelly’s first October outing of 2020 that had all the leverage.
In Game 2 of the NLDS against the Padres, Kenley Jansen was lifted after allowing two runs, trimming the Dodgers’ lead to 6-5. Kelly entered with the tying run on first base and two outs. By Baseball-Reference’s average leverage index, anything above 1.0 is considered high leverage. Kelly’s leverage when entering this game was 5.83, the highest by any Dodgers pitcher all postseason.
Kelly was very deliberate, and walked both Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado after running the count full to each hitter. With the bases loaded, Kelly induced a game-ending ground out by Eric Hosmer, preserving the Dodgers’ win and, after a nail-biting, 19-pitch outing by Kelly, a long exhale. And a save.
“Never in doubt, we had it in our hands. That’s how Joe Kelly rolls,” Clayton Kershaw said with a smile after the Game 2 win. “You know, Joe likes to make it interesting for us.”
Kelly is under contract for one more year at $8.5 million, and will be a free agent after the 2021 season.