Washington Nationals: Shawn Kelley Primed For Closer

Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports /

Shawn Kelley filled the closer role for a short period in 2016. Can he earn the job in 2017 for the Washington Nationals? Odds are he can.

If the Washington Nationals are forced to go in-house for a closer to start the 2017 season, Shawn Kelley is the most likely candidate.

The only internal option with major-league closing experience, the 32-year-old veteran excelled in 2016 as a setup man and a temporary closer. As he filled in for Jonathan Papelbon, before the Nats traded for Mark Melancon from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kelley recorded seven saves.

With Washington in 2016, Kelley pitched in 67 games while throwing 58 innings. Posting an ERA of 2.64, his WHIP of 0.897 is in the mix of dominant closers. Throw in 80 strikeouts mixed with 11 walks and you have a pitcher with fabulous control. Pitchers who strikeout 7.27 hitters for every walk allowed are rare, yet he did it last season.

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Used primarily as a setup player for Papelbon and Melancon, Kelley surrendered nine home runs in 2016. That figures to a high 1.4 HR/9 rate. Yet, when you consider his BB/9 ratio is 1.7, and he whiffed 12.4-per-nine. You take the weak with the strong.

In 10 professional seasons, Kelley’s job has never been as a primary closer. Drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 2007 MLB Draft—a 13th round pick—with stops with the New York Yankees and San Diego Padres in, his primary job is setting up. His minor-league WHIP was 1.060 over 121.1 innings and 1.177 over his 342.1 MLB frames.

Of the three players on the Nats staff in position to audition for the role, he carries the best pure numbers and experience. If given the chance, he can handle the role.

His pitching arsenal, at first blush, will not overwhelm you. FanGraphs says his fastball tops out around 92-mph and he only mixes in a slider in the low-80s. Yet, it is his movement on the pitches that gives him such high strikeout numbers. He throws a high percentage of sliders, around 45 percent.

With the Yanks and Padres, he tossed more sliders than fastballs. His ability to pound the strike zone works. When hitters make contact, his BABIP last year was .258. A considerable improvement from the .300+ figures he had with San Diego and New York. The more he uses his fastball, the more success he has.

Kelley’s control is miles ahead of Blake Treinen right now. Although Koda Glover has tremendous talent, he pales in experience at the tender age of 24. If the Nats cannot land Greg Holland or trade for a second-level closer, Kelley has the goods to earn the job.

Confidence plays a huge factor in being successful in the position. If he can handle the pressure, the Nationals can hold onto their payroll flexibility this summer and see how far he can take the club.

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Kelley has earned the chance.