Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly’s season-long funk finds a new low

Los Angeles Dodgers v Cincinnati Reds
Joe Kelly delivers during a game against the Cincinnati Reds on May 17. Kelly’s contract makes it hard for the Dodgers to give up on the beleaguered reliever.
(Joe Robbins / Getty Images)

Dave Roberts summoned Joe Kelly to start the eighth inning Monday night, thinking it was a good low-leverage situation for the struggling reliever to shake some rust after a three-day stint on the bereavement list.

The Dodgers had an 8-3 lead over the New York Mets and closer Kenley Jansen available in case of emergency. Three batters later, the Dodgers manager had to break glass and grab the fire extinguisher.

Kelly gave up a single to Todd Frazier, a two-run homer to Adeiny Hechavarria and a single to Dominic Smith. Kelly was replaced by Dylan Floro.

The Mets loaded the bases before Jansen entered and got J.D. Davis to fly to right field. Cody Bellinger made a 275-foot throw to third to nail Carlos Gomez for an inning-ending double play. The Dodgers won, 9-5.


The two-run, no-out inning boosted Kelly’s ERA to 8.83 in 17 1/3 innings across 18 games. If not for Bellinger’s spectacular throw, Kelly would have been charged with three runs, the Mets would have cut the deficit to two and had runners on second and third with two outs for No. 3 batter Michael Conforto.

“It’s been a tough road for Joe to start the season,” Roberts said. “I don’t want to get too much into what’s going on personally for him, but I think there are things in peoples’ lives that sometimes affect performance. He’ll never make excuses, but I think if you look on the surface, it’s just execution.”

Kelly, who signed a three-year, $25-million deal after starring for the Boston Red Sox last October, declined to discuss the circumstances that led to his weekend stay on the bereavement list.

The right-hander has given up 27 hits, including four homers, struck out 17 and walked six this season. He has had only two clean innings.


Velocity isn’t a problem. Kelly’s fastball is averaging 97.5 mph according to Fangraphs, only a tick below his 98.1 mph average in 2018. Location, pitch quality and strike-throwing ability have been issues.

Batters have been ahead in counts in more plate appearances (32) than Kelly has been ahead (27). Kelly has yielded a .423 average and 1.300 on-base-plus-slugging percentage when behind in the count and a .259 average and .556 OPS when he’s ahead. Hitters have swung at the first pitch in 20 plate appearances, producing a .350 average and 1.050 OPS.

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The Dodgers have too many years and dollars invested in Kelly to give up on him. But Kelly, who turns 31 on June 9, has eight years of big league service time, so he can refuse a minor league assignment. Short of a stint on the injured list that would allow for a minor league rehabilitation assignment, Kelly will have to work out his issues in the big leagues.

“When you’re getting behind, as he has been, and you’re making mistakes with the fastball, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw — guys these days can time a bullet,” Roberts said. “With Joe, we have to work on getting ahead in the count, as all pitchers should. Get strike one, then execute your pitches.”

Shoulder setback

Reliever Tony Cingrani, whose rehab assignment was cut short last week by recurring discomfort in his left shoulder, returned to Los Angeles to be evaluated.

Cingrani, limited to 30 games in 2018 and sidelined since March this season, was on the verge of returning to the Dodgers when his shoulder began to bother him while warming up.


“I don’t know if it’s minor or if it’s severe,” Cingrani said. “I’m not happy. I mean, I was good to go.”


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