It’s easier to number the interruptions than the smooth transitions in Jarred Kelenic’s short professional career. A trade just months after his draft day out of high school. His lone “normal” year of 2019, soaring from then-Low-A West Virginia to then-High-A Modesto and eventually Double-A Arkansas, concluding with mild injuries that held him out of most of the Arizona Fall League. Then, COVID struck the 2020 minor league season from the record, disgraced former Seattle Mariners team president Kevin Mather did his blathering, and finally 2021 rolled around, giving Kelenic a month and a half of time in Tacoma before struggling immensely in his initial call-up, tweaking his mechanics back from an initial shift, and finishing strong with a September/October to dream on. And yet, instead of rolling into 2022 with a through line of communication and development, the owners’ lockout this winter forbid 40-man roster players like Kelenic from any contact or workouts with club personnel, ensuring radio silence for the young outfielder from anyone in the organization until the relatively sudden conclusion of the lockout on March 10th.
Now that chronicle includes a disappointing April 2022. Kelenic has looked much improved in the grass as he’s asked to man corner outfield, racking up assists and quality reads, but that’s not his primary responsibility. At the plate, Kelenic has looked somewhere between uninspiring and downright grisly. His struggles are frustratingly reminiscent in numbers to his poor initial call-up, but much of what the 22-year-old is doing is distinct. His once-hunched stance is now more upright, in closer line to the adjustments Kelenic seemed to make in late 2021. In early 2022 you could see he’d once again made some changes pre-pitch.
Here’s where we enter what I like to call Caveat Corner. I’m comfortable at identifying traits and techniques in hitters, but I’d prefer analyzing a pitcher every day of the week and twice on Sunday. It comes more comfortably to me, and without the context of Kelenic’s intent behind any given change or movement, I am attempting to draw conclusions from a multifaceted mechanical process that is ever-changing. Moreover, Hunter Pence, Tony Batista, and Rod Carew were all great hitters and reminders that “correct” mechanics are a fool’s errand, and each individual has things that work for them. The reality is Kelenic has made many adjustments throughout his career, sometimes self-driven, others by personal coaches or trainers, and some by his team. It’s part of what’s made him great, and being able to adjust is vital to staying competitive and relevant. Caveat Corner complete.
What I am seeing from Kelenic are a few core issues, all resolvable, though the how there is a bit tricky. Specifically, what I believe I’m noticing are...
- Misalignment in his hip rotation axis and the angle of his bat as it comes through the zone (a.k.a. vertical bat angle (VBA))
- Loss of power/weight transfer from his back leg, and potentially a dearth of overall power from his entire back side
- Just... so many dang changes once again, making consistency of any sort a huge challenge
We’ll go through piece by piece.
Do we feel like we’re nitpicking enough yet? Above are stills of the point of contact for two Kelenic swings. Both result in home runs, the literal best possible result. Both come on nearly the same pitch, fastballs upper-middle, taken from the same camera angle at T-Mobile Park. It’s about as good as I can do for finding direct comparisons. What stands out to me are two things, the angle of Kelenic’s belt/torso, and the difference in drive from his back leg. At the moment of contact above, Kelenic’s is in two very different positions from late last year to the early going of 2022. In late 2021 we can see closer alignment between Kelenic’s torso as it rotates and his bat angle, helpfully displayed in by both the angle of his jersey’s vertical buttons as well as his belt’s slight tilt in near-alignment with his bat path. Contrast that to Kelenic - on ostensibly the best swing of his first month of the season - on the right, with a similar bat path yet a belt nearly parallel to the ground and his torso almost perpendicular to it. While his bat path is near identical, his rotation is not, seemingly causing a dispersal of power and torque that does not transfer fully into his swing. By opening his hips up fully and rotating his torso off axis to his swing, Kelenic leaves power on the table and also likely makes it more difficult to handle pitches lower and further away. Here’s the full swings for each pitch.
The concept of hip/torso separation is a well understood one in the baseball world, at least by hitting coaches, with the gist being this: the goal of a hitter seeking maximum power when they hit the ball should be to engage hip hinge in their load, unlocking their lower half so as to begin rotating that lower half toward the pitcher upon the end of their stride. While that lower half rotates, the torso and upper half remains closed, maintaining the tension like a drawn bowstring until the hands and bat begin to come through the zone. As that torso rotation begins, it ideally should be on a similar plane to the hands and the bat, so as to ensure the bat receives the utmost amount of that pre-coiled energy that begins in the lower half and is now being driven forward from the hitter’s back leg, through the hips, and whipping into contact.
Maintaining spine angle visual.— Max Dutto (@MaxDutto_) August 26, 2019
These hitters are rotating "underneath their head" or maintaining the spine angle set by their original hip hinge.
My favorite cue for this is, “rotate like a steel rod is drilled through the top of your head.” pic.twitter.com/UXhmJpIMQy
In theory, this allows the hitter to not only deliver the maximum amount of power in their contact, but also maintain coverage of the entire plate. So what was Kelenic attempting to adjust to as he alluded to in Shannon Drayer’s recent article?
The one little bit of frustration [Kelenic] may have had about where he was was displayed with a tinge of humor when asked mid-interview how he knew when it was time to make an adjustment.
“Ummmm, (sigh). When you are striking out every game? I’m just kidding,” he said shaking his head. “When you give something a try and you set a…I tried to make an adjustment a couple of weeks ago and I said I would give it to May to see if I was going in an upward direction or not. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, so now it’s learning from the mistakes that I’ve made in the last few weeks and now I’m going to make those adjustments for an extended period of time and see where I am.”
Perhaps he was seeking to handle elevated fastballs, operating with a more upright stance that stayed more level on the common high-spin four-seam fastball. The best contact Kelenic generated this year thus far has all been on elevated heat in the zone, so it could be a reasonable goal. But the consequences of not being able to handle or make good swing decisions on low pitches, in particular off-speed, seems too steep a price to pay.
Kelenic has seemingly flipped the switch back to last September’s alignment in the past week and a half, beginning in Miami and continuing forward. He’s back to his September stance, more or less, with a bit of a bat tip that may help him stay regulated. It’s hardly been a revolutionary difference for the young righty thus far, but his plate appearances have looked more competitive to my appraisal including better swing decisions, and his walk rate has shot up to double-digits, hopefully bearing the results of those choices. You can see all three swings from last fall through early this spring and to now below:
So no, Scott Servais, we’re not “making s&%^ up” about Kelenic’s adjustments.
Asked if Kelenic had made adjustments to his stance or swing, Servais said with a laugh, "I think you guys are making s&%^ up."— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) May 4, 2022
But he did like that Kelenic seemed less tight at the plate in his set up
The end result here is hopefully positive, a swing that worked last fall and can work well for Kelenic going forward. He’s already shown a desire to be a tinkerer, to improve on his strengths and shore up his weaknesses. The Mariners have been the beneficiaries of that drive defensively, as Kelenic has been a clear plus with his glove and arm in corner outfield this year, keeping himself afloat in terms of contributions to the team. But for the 22-year-old, hopefully consistency in his mechanics at the plate can portend more lasting success, as Seattle desperately needs a spark at the plate in the absence of so many proven performers to injury and slow starts from others. Kelenic can be that player, if of course this swing is the right one.