Washington Nationals: examining Shawn Kelley’s struggles in 2017

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Jun 16, 2017; New York City, NY, USA; Washington Nationals relief pitcher Shawn Kelley (27) delivers a pitch during the ninth inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 16, 2017; New York City, NY, USA; Washington Nationals relief pitcher Shawn Kelley (27) delivers a pitch during the ninth inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports /
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It’s been a rough season for Washington Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley as he’s had a tough time finding any success

Editor’s Update:  Kelley is now on the 10-day disabled list.

Last season, Shawn Kelley was one of the more reliable relievers in the Washington Nationals bullpen. From September 1 until Game 5 of the NLDS, teams were having a tough time scoring runs against him. This year, it has been exactly the opposite and Kelley has been relegated to mop up duty.

This year, the 33-year-old right-hander has appeared in 22 games and has given up a run and a home run in nine of them. Before the year, Kelley was considered a closer candidate and even had the job in April. Now, everyone worries when Kelley even enters the game.

So, what can be the reason for why Kelley has been bad this year? Before yesterday’s game against the New York Mets, manager Dusty Baker told the media that a neck issue could be what caused Kelley’s velocity to go down Friday night:

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The long ball has been a problem for Kelley since he got to D.C. last season, but it’s been more magnified this year. The nine home runs he’s allowed this year is as many as he gave up in 67 games in 2016.

When you look at Kelley’s numbers more closely, he’s leaving a lot of pitches up in the zone and teams are making him pay. With just a two-pitch arsenal (fastball and slider), he needs to have pinpoint location. According to Fangraphs, his flyball percentage of 60.7% is his highest at the big league level since 2010 with the Mariners (61.4%).

As for Baker’s comments about the dip on his velocity, the numbers show it has more of an impact on his slider compared to the fastball. Right now, his average fastball velocity of 92.3 miles-per-hour is about the same as it was last year (Fangraphs). But, the key pitch to watch is the slider.

The release speed on Kelley’s slider has taken a dip compared to last month. According to Brooks Baseball, the average release speed on that pitch was about 83.8 mph in May. This month, it’s down to about 81.6. When the slider velocity is that low, any lack of movement could result in the pitch being hit hard.

If Kelley does need to go on the disabled list, it could be the mental break that he might need right now. With all of these bad outings, you have to wonder what his confidence level is. He has one more year left on his contract, so the Washington Nationals most likely won’t designate him for assignment and eat the rest of his contract.

At some point, the Washington Nationals are going to make moves to help the bullpen. While Kelley won’t be the closer, they could still use him in the late innings if he is able to fix the problems he’s had.

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Whatever the Nats decide to do, they need Kelley to bounce back regardless of the moves they make between now and the trade deadline. They can’t have a bullpen where the only right-hander you trust right now is Matt Albers and expect to achieve all of their goals.

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