Monday, October 30, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, October 30, 2023 -- "Kelly, Kelly, Kelly, Kelly..."


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter: Kelly, Kelly, Kelly, Kelly...
Vol. 15, No. 128
October 30, 2023

Merrill Kelly is what amounts to a junkballer in 2023, with two fastballs that average 92 mph, five pitches he throws at least 10% of the time, and a 26% strikeout rate. Drop that profile into Busch Stadium in 1988 and you’d have a perennial Cy Young Award contender. Kelly, in this century, had to be drafted three times, released once, and have four good years on the other side of the world just to get a sniff in the majors.

Since coming back Stateside in 2019, Kelly has been a good pitcher on bad teams, making almost all his starts outside the shortened 2020 season, throwing strikes, and becoming an anchor for a Diamondbacks club that has spent the last few years struggling to keep a rotation together. Kelly’s value isn’t that he’s going to wipe out the opponent on any given night, it’s that he’s going to take the ball and not give it back for five innings. Since we got back to business in 2021, Kelly is fourth in MLB with 83 starts of at least five innings. He is a classic #3 starter.

With these Diamondbacks, though, he’s had to carry more. Just as Zac Gallen is a #2 serving as a #1, Kelly is bumped up a notch because there is no true #1 here. Gallen, though, has scuffled this October, while Kelly has thrived in four starts: 24 innings, six runs allowed, a 28/7 K/BB. Saturday night in Texas, with the Snakes coming back from a crushing loss that put them behind in the Series and toasted their A bullpen, Kelly needed just 89 pitches to throw seven full innings. (As many noted, that made him the first starter to work that deep in the Series since 2019.) He threw the kitchen sink at the Rangers, throwing no pitch more than a quarter of the time, and five at least 10% of the time.

That’s a summary and a little bit abstract, so let’s look at what that means for a hitter, say one of the Game One heroes, Corey Seager. 

First PA: Two-seam, changeup
Second PA: Two-seam
Third PA: Two-seam, two-seam, changeup, four-seam, changeup, cutter

Three PAs and nine pitches deep, when it gets hairy for starters facing the top of the lineup a third time, Kelly was able to show Seager something entirely new. Seager swung at the 2-2 cutter, not coming close, for Kelly’s sixth strikeout.

Let’s so this for the other Game One hero, and growing postseason legend, Adolis Garcia:

First PA: Four-seam, changeup
Second PA: Four-seam, changeup
Third PA: Slider, cutter, four-seam, four-seam, curve, four-seam

Garcia stared at that 2-2 fastball on the outside corner, having seen four distinct offerings in the first five, he was frozen by 94 dead straight.

There’s a known effect here. A deeper repertoire can help mitigate, though not eliminate, the third-time penalty. As we’ve discussed, Kelly still gets hit for a lot of power when facing hitters a third time, so all these pitches only do so much. At a one-game level, though, you can see where having so many options, especially for hitters who didn’t see much of the toolkit the first two times up, makes a difference. 

Torey Lovullo needed innings from Kelly, and was likely prepared to ride with his starter even with less than stellar results. Instead, he got a fantastic performance that helped tie the World Series.

Now, it will be forgotten because of the final score, but Jordan Montgomery was right there with Kelly for six innings, holding the Diamondbacks to two runs. He allowed a solo homer to Gabriel Moreno for one, and a double by Tommy Pham to set up the other. He didn’t have the stuff he’d shown off for much of October, his velocity down, getting just two whiffs on the night. Still, he danced through the raindrops for a quality start.

There was some talk about Montgomery’s ALCS Game Seven relief work affecting him, but that seems like post hoc reasoning. Montgomery threw 32 pitches on his throw day and had four days’ rest before his start. I’m open to the idea that there’s some cumulative effect, though. Montgomery has thrown close to 3300 pitches this year, 500 more than he did a year ago, which was itself a career high. He’s never pitched this long into a year (a factor I think is meaningful) or thrown so many high-stress pitches in September and October. Every pitch at this point is a triumph of adrenaline over fatigue, and you won’t always win that battle.

I liked Bruce Bochy flipping Montgomery and Nathan Eovaldi because it gave Montgomery the extra day of rest for both his Series starts. After Saturday night, I’m more convinced it was the right choice.

Bochy didn’t help Montgomery much beyond that, though. While his hands were tied similar to the way Lovullo’s were, Bochy had the luxury of having two of his top relievers rested. When Montgomery escaped the sixth by picking Pham off second base, that should have been the end of his night. As mentioned: two swings-and-misses, a decline in velocity, seven hits scattered. Bochy had gotten a bit lucky for the Rangers to be down just 2-1 at that point.

I might defend leaving Montgomery in to start the seventh, as left-handed-hitting Alek Thomas was set to lead off. After Thomas doubled, his second hit off Montgomery, that needed to be the end. Letting Montgomery face Evan Longoria was a clear mistake, and it set the game on fire. Longoria singled home Thomas, making it 3-1. Bochy went to Andrew Heaney; Heaney, Dane Dunning, Chris Stratton and Martin Perez proceeded to show why Bochy wanted to leave Montgomery in, allowing five runs, plus the one they inherited, over the last three innings. 

The name not mentioned there is where Bochy screwed up. Down a run in the seventh is a high-leverage spot, and instead of messing around with Montgomery and his B bullpen, Bochy needed to get a rested Josh Sborz into the game. Bochy, remember, had lined up Sborz to face Yordan Alvarez in ALCS Game Six, so he clearly trusts him against left-handed batters. Sborz hadn’t pitched since Monday, so fatigue wasn’t the issue. Sunday is a day off, so needing him tomorrow isn’t an issue. If Bochy was saving Sborz for the ninth, having used Jose Leclerc for two innings in Game One, don’t do that. The game is in front of you, and it’s not like we don’t have a pretty recent example of how you might not need your closer in the ninth for good reasons. Saving Sborz to pitch the ninth is a good way to ensure you won’t get to use Sborz in the ninth.

Bochy’s choice was made tougher by a surprise move from Lovullo, one that worked out better than the Diamondbacks skipper could have expected. Alek Thomas isn’t in a strict platoon, but he generally sits against lefty starters. Thomas started just 15 of the 49 games this year in which the Diamondbacks faced a southpaw. He hit .143/.175/.260 against lefties this year, with 22 strikeouts and 11 hits. Thomas started against Clayton Kershaw in the Division Series, then sat against the three lefty starters the Phillies went with in the NLCS. Lovullo chose Thomas over Emmanuel Rivera, effectively, and Thomas found two hits, including that seventh-inning double. That was the direct benefit.

The indirect benefit was in complicating Bochy’s life. Rather than having six straight right-handed batters, an easy pocket for Sborz or even Stratton, the lineup with Thomas in it had better balance. Watching live, I think Bochy wanted Montgomery to get through the seventh, and failing that, wanted Heaney in the safest pocket he could find. That meant letting Montgomery face Longoria, a clear error that cost two runs.

Having Thomas in the #7 hole...look, my Strat nerd bonafides are well known, and this is the kind of thing you think about playing 10,000 games of table baseball. Do I start the defense and the lineup balance even if it means eating 2-3 terrible plate appearances? Sometimes when you do that, you roll 1-12 a few times, too.

The Rangers scored one run, so maybe they lose anyway, but Bochy mishandled his seventh-inning decision and let a winnable game get away from him. He could have opened the inning with Sborz, or even Heaney, and had a better chance of getting through the seventh unscathed.

One of the issues I have with the concept of “dealing” is that people using that term are almost always just looking at the scoreboard. Montgomery wasn’t within a time zone of his best, wasn’t “dealing,” was just surviving. Twice post-game, asked about Montgomery, Bochy said “he was pitching well,” and that’s just wrong. Bochy didn’t use his eyes to make a decision on Montgomery, and he didn’t use his gut. He used the box score. 

Montgomery’s problems missing bats allowed the Diamondbacks to join some very rare company. They struck out just two times in Game Two, the first team to strike out less than three times in a World Series game since the Rangers did it in Game Two in 2010. No team has gone an entire World Series game without striking out since the Angels did it in 2002, in that wild 11-10 Game Two. That 2002 classic, in fact, is the only time since 1960 that a team hasn’t struck out in a World Series game.

There’s a real desire to make the Diamondbacks’ success about baserunning and smallball. I guess everything has to be baseball culture war now. As for what actually happened, the Diamondbacks scored their first three runs, the decisive ones, on a homer; a double followed by a single; and a double followed by a single. For the game they hit .432 and slugged .595, in no small part because they got a look at bottom of the Rangers’ staff. They got credit for three sacrifice bunts, two of which looked to me like “bunt for a hit and settle for a sacrifice” bunts, which are...fine. They stole one base and the runner went nowhere after that.

The Diamondbacks scored nine runs because they raked. Pretending they’re the 1903 Giants is silly. You don’t have to believe me, they publish the boxscore.