Shawn Kelley emerged from relative obscurity in 2009 as the one member of the bullpen that could throw strikes on a consistent basis. In a unit featuring a lot of David Aardsma, Miguel Batista, Mark Lowe and Sean White, Kelley provided a clear distinction as the pitcher most able to avoid walks. Quickly he went from a nobody to one of our favorite players. Kelley didn't diddle around on the mound. He didn't waste time and he didn't walk people. He was a godsend.
And then he went away with a horrific looking oblique injury. He returned in July and was awful for a month before going on a tear to end the season that few people noticed because his ERA was so bad in July. To those of us paying attention however, Kelley looked poised for a breakout in 2010.
Through May, Kelley delivered. Though the walks were up, they were still lower than average and Kelley was still striking out three hitters for each walk allowed. Kelley was tossing strikes at a 68% rate --right in line with 2009-- and was missing bats at a 12% clip, an improvement from the previous season.
Kelley's last five appearances were a drastic downturn for him though. Starting with a June 5 appearance, his control went awry, he stopped missing bats and he became eminently hittable. That lasted for ten days and then Kelley disappeared for awhile, eventually surfacing on the disabled list. Unlike last year, Kelley would not return to the Mariner bullpen. He instead found his way to the Erik Bedard Memorial Mariner operating room. And so ended his 2010 season on the mound.
But the impact on 2011 wasn't over yet. A second Tommy John surgery seemed inevitable, dooming hope for 2011. Instead, exploratory surgery found only minor issues from the original surgery and he might be able to make a full season out of 2011. Even if it takes an extra month or two for him to come back, it's a boon to a unit that was an utter mess this season. If Kelley can make it back, what has his 2010 performance done to change our projections for him going forward?
Kelley continued his massive fly ball tendencies. To succeed with that, you like to see the pitcher generate a lot of strikeouts. Kelley isn't so much that kind of pitcher. He gets his share of whiffs, but he's only a touch above average in that regard. Kelley's strength is combining slightly above average strikeouts with his above average walk rate to form a well above average strikeout to walk ratio.
It would be wise to expect a bit of regression in that ratio when Kelley returns due to both natural regression and any lingering aftereffects of the injury. With luck, he will round back into form with continued reps and be back to the guy we loved in the early and late months of 2009.
There's even a chance that his batted ball profile could skew toward more ground balls. Kelley exhibited more neutral rates in the minors than he's shown in his relatively short stints in Seattle. Any progress on that front would be well received since Kelley's main knock has been his proneness to allowing home runs.
When healthy, Shawn Kelley is one of the Mariners' better relievers. He's never going to be a lights out guy in his current model, but he can be a reliable cog in an overly effective pen. With no Cliff Lee around to go 8 or 9 innings each turn next year, even more reliance will be placed on Seattle's bullpen. It badly needs people like Kelley to be there. Get well, Shawn.