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Shawn Kelley's 2009 Injury and Effects

A little background to get us in the mood. You might want to turn the lights down a little. Pour some wine, it's okay, I'll wait. Now then, Shawn Kelley was selected in the 13th round of the 2007 draft out of George Sherrill's alum Austin Peay State University. It's unusual for someone to make it up to the Majors in just a year and a half, much less for somebody talented enough to do so being lost all the way until the 13th round. After getting his feet wet in 2007, Kelley started out 2008 in High-A and moved quickly to Double-A West Tennessee where he still pitched just 42.2 innings. Nevertheless, last season Kelley found himself on the Mariners' roster from the get-go. Kelley is currently the only member of Seattle's 2007 draft class to have played in the Majors, though 7th round selection Nick Hill could join him this coming season.

Shawn Kelley appeared in ten games for the Mariners before going down with his catastrophic rib injury. In those ten games, Kelley tossed 11.2 innings, struck out 11 and walked just 1. In a bullpen that couldn't find the strike zone with a compass, GPS unit, flashing neon signs or even a YOU ARE HERE map, it was a welcome relief have Kelley come in out of the pen to throw strikes. That he could actually throw those strikes past batters was even more welcome. This wasn't just a cute looking puppy sitting across the street; we managed to coax it over and pet it too! It was a small sample, but Kelley was coming out of nowhere and establishing himself as a potential dissenter to The Ministry.

And then the injury happened and we wouldn't see Kelley for two months while our bullpen went to tatters. Kelley came back just before the All-Star Break on July 3rd, but for the next month the magic was gone. Over Kelley's first 11 games back, he threw a similar 11 innings, but faced eight more batters, had four fewer strikeouts, walked five and allowed three home runs. 17 hits fell in as well, making him look even worse.

Relievers have small samples - not just for a season, but also game to game. That makes it difficult to point to any particular game and say "Here is where he turned it around," but starting around his appearance on August 7th and continuing for the remainder of the season, Shawn Kelley was back. He finished strong. Immensely strong, even though it was hidden a bit now by how awful he had been in July. How quickly the mind anchors itself to that new first impression. From August 7th to the end of the season, Kelley appeared in 20 games, faced 93 batters, struck out 23, and walked just three. The same 17 hits dropped in on him but in almost twice as many hitters faced and over twice as many innings pitched (23.1 to 11).

What changed? The obvious answer is that Kelley came back too quickly from injury and it took more time for him to heal. I would be more inclined to believe that if he had sucked then went back on the disabled list to fully recover and came back pitching like his April self. Kelley didn't take any extra time off after coming back to the roster however and I am skeptical that he simply couldn't find his Staples-brand easy button for a month and eventually discovered it hiding in Jarrod Washburn's old locker.

This is the incorrect way.

So I went looking deeper. Kelley is essentially a two-pitch guy. He has a fastball and a slider and might possibly have a changeup but he throws it so rarely as to be meaningless for this purpose. I went through and compiled the following scary looking chart. Don't worry, I explain it directly below and most of it is meaningless, which I will also get to.

Pre: (Through May 5th)
    109 FB, 93.2mph, 31°, 3.8", 209, 2311
    51 SL, 83.1mph, -12°, 9.2", 91, 801
Comeback: (July 3rd through August 4th)
    126 FB, 92.8mph, 30°, 3.8", 208, 2240
    46 SL, 83.1mph, -12°, 9.1", 92, 826
End: (August 4th onwards)
    259 FB, 93.5mph, 29°, 3.7", 207, 2275
    110 SL, 84.2mph, -12°, 8.6", 101, 827

Each line contains:
    the number of times the pitch was thrown
    the type of the pitch [fastball (FB) or slider (SL)]
    Average speed
    Average break angle [0° is down, 90° is toward RHB, -90° toward LHB]
    Average break length
    Average spin direction
    Average spin rate

I looked at all of this to see if anything jumped out. There doesn't seem to be anything in the actual pitch movements or frequencies. The closest anomaly is a 1mph jump in average slider speed, something hardly noteworthy in general and even less so over such small samples. His fastball and slider both maintained similar breaks and spins. Kelley's pitches themselves did not fluctuate in any noticeable way*, but his results on those pitches certainly did. Take a look at another chart:

*I also mapped out his locations, but over such small samples it is difficult to notice anything but the largest shifts, none of which were present

Pre: (Through May 5th)
    109 FB, 30% / 25.5%
    51 SL, 35% / 31.8%
Comeback: (July 3rd through August 4th)
    126 FB, 35% / 18.8%
    46 SL, 41% / 34.4%
End: (August 4th onwards)
    259 FB, 30% / 26.5%
    110 SL, 28% / 35.8%

The two percentages following the pitch identification is the percentage of pitches called for a ball and the percentage of pitches either called a strike or swung on and missed. Shawn Kelley came back from two months off and was unable to throw strikes as consistently as he had been able to before. Given his professional experience up to that point - just 78 innings in the minors and 11 innings in the majors - some rust is hardly a surprise.

Based on everything that I looked at, and my complete inaccessibility to ask him or Rick Adair directly, my best guess is just that: some rust following the time off to heal. The great news is that Kelley finished stronger than he began the season, and if he manages to maintain rates close to those he posted from August 4th on, he is going to be a highly valuable piece to the Mariner bullpen. Over 70% strikes and with some missed bats thrown in as well? Perfect.