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40 in 40: Jarred Kelenic and learning the hard way

How many lessons can one player pack in

Detroit Tigers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

There have been more challenging outsets to careers, but given the expectations both internal and external, that’s likely little comfort to Jarred Kelenic as the young outfielder enters his age-23 season. He is slated for the inside track on (though not guaranteed) the primary role in left field for the Seattle Mariners as a platoon with veteran A.J. Pollock and the M’s two LHP-inclined utility men. That he is afforded that billing is testament in part to the club’s belief in him and his exemplary numbers all throughout the minor leagues, as well as in spurts of his big league run, which have nonetheless not overcome a deeply unsavory offensive line.

In 558 career big league plate appearances, slightly shy of an approximate full single season, he’s gone .168/.251/.338, his 21 home runs and 11 steals in 17 attempts alongside a walk rate over 9% not squaring the ledger with a strikeout rate just shy of 30% and a 68/66/75 wRC+/OPS+/DRC+ that is infeasible even with blistering exit velocities when contact is made and encouraging early returns on his defense in corner outfield work. Much of this can be attributed to what Jarrett Seidler wrote about over at Baseball Prospectus in June of 2022: that for as exceptional as Kelenic has been in the minors at mashing fastballs, the former No. 6 overall pick has struggled mightily with breaking balls and off-speed pitches in general.

Brooks Baseball

Note that the chart above is from ALL competition levels, which is to say it includes Kelenic’s multiple minor league stints in the past couple seasons, and while it’s obviously encouraging to see some improvement in September/October when Kelenic returned to the bigs in 2022, the oft-mutable Kelenic has made evaluating his mechanics a subculture of its own among scouts. His adjustments have been well chronicled here (back in 2021), here (in early 2022 despite Scott Servais suggesting people were “making s&%^ up”), and even a bit here (late 2022 after he was sent down to attempt to progress in his development against those tricky breaking balls). Here’s where he finished 2022, with cause for enthusiasm despite somewhat meager results:

The story is simple then, in a sense: Kelenic is an above-average hitter (.331 wOBA, .360 xwOBA in 2022) against fastballs, and well below it against the soft, spinny stuff. A 23-year-old with lesser tools might be toast, or unable to adjust and improve, but a 23-year-old with lesser tools wouldn’t have hit well enough throughout the minors to justify his place on the big league roster two years in a row. Trusting that talent for good and ill is why Kelenic finds himself in some ignominious locations, like the 103rd spot of 103 outfielders in OPS+ since 1961 with at least 550 plate appearances up to and through their age-22 season.

Stathead/Baseball Reference

The names in his company are a fascinating medley, and it’s worth noting Kelenic has the 4th-fewest PAs of any player in this collection (but is tied for 57th in home runs!). The top of this list is stacked with exactly who you might suspect: Mike Trout, Juan Soto, and Julio Rodríguez, but the bottom (pictured above) offers possible seeds of what we are trying to find in Kelenic’s future. To a man, the names near Kelenic in early struggles are then-Top-100 prospects given yards and yards of leash to figure it out. Some, like Bergeron, Melendez, and Meyer never put it all together (though at least in the latter’s case, Meyer did put up multiple solid offensive years, his defense often in the infield was the true catastrophe). Others, like Patterson, Tolan, and Johnstone kept grinding away towards respectable big league careers, albeit in the realm of “remembering some guys” more than unforgettable play. And some, like Gómez, Moseby, Damon, and of course Jones put together careers that ultimately heartily fulfilled their promise, including All-Star appearances and consistent quality offense well outpacing their miserable early seasons.

I won’t digress with the biographies of each player named above but I can tell you each had every bit as fascinating a path as Kelenic to where the M’s young outfielder finds himself. Gómez in particular tickles me as a comparison given their overlapping penchant for fiery, emotion-laden play and competitiveness that made/makes them exhilarating to watch succeed...

...and at times exasperating to see struggle.

Perhaps Kelenic could also seek comfort in the path of Moseby, albeit probably not the specific path he’s most famous for, as the 1978 2nd overall pick ground through three straight abysmal seasons at the dish while hitting a miserable .233/.285/.364 in an era where batting average was still king and his strikeout rate of 20.2% was further above league-average (around 13% from 1980-82) than Kelenic has been thus far. Moseby went on to a 110 OPS+ over the next nine seasons, something that would easily make Kelenic an excellent member of the M’s lineup.

It’s also not that far off what is still expected of the young outfielder by Steamer’s projections, which per FanGraphs project him for a 105 wRC+ and a .224/.295/.415 line. That includes an improved projection for his BABIP, which has thus far been a staggeringly poor .201 (also 103rd on that list, a cool 25 points behind the plodding Meyer and 48 points below the next-worst rate). It’s hard to know what sort of line Kelenic will run on batted balls, though he is theoretically the type of player likeliest to be helped by the limitations on shifting which will be in place in 2023. While I’m skeptical that it will have a massive impact, as the difference isn’t between a shift and nothing, particularly given the smaller sample of his season, the gap between Kelenic’s non-shifted wOBA of .316 and his wOBA when shifted on of .226 last year is the difference between a decent hitter like Ryan Mountcastle or Marcus Semien and a putrid one like Austin Hedges or Leury Garcia. Kelenic should be the beneficiary of at least a half-dozen more hits through on the right side in the coming season, and hopefully much more.

I don’t recall a young player more deeply challenged out of the gate given his talent and promise upon entering the league. Kelenic himself shared a video over the off-season spun out of a quote from Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagavailoa. The former national champion and University of Alabama star had had a challenging entrance into the NFL, and was struggling mightily with how to reconcile his expectations and past success with his present failures.

It’s incredibly difficult to succeed in Major League Baseball, but Jarred Kelenic has done everything that would suggest he can still be successful even if he has not been yet. Just as it was for Tagavailoa in a stellar-when-healthy campaign, I do not believe Jarred Kelenic sucks. But it is an unenviable challenge to reckon with overcoming that fear, particularly when at every other stage he has excelled. Now, through their minimalist offseason, the Mariners have given Kelenic a sign that they still believe in him to be the player he’s flashed for half a decade. For Seattle to take the next step towards competing with the Houston Astros for a division title, perhaps believe no player could make as big a difference than the 23-year-old from Waukesha, WI.