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I believe in Jarred Kelenic

It’s a long winter—we can all have a little Jarred hopium, as a treat

Jarred Kelenic holds up a “Believe” sign during the last week of the 2021 season
Believe. Or don’t. I’m a sign, not a cop.
Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

In the last series of the regular season, Jarred Kelenic hit a line drive. What was special about this line drive? Nothing. And that’s what we’re here to discuss.

Jarred’s been making very good contact

Judged by his results, Kelenic had an awful 2022, with a 55 wRC+ somehow worse than the 74 he put up in his debut season in 2021. And yet underneath that, he’s made surprisingly good contact over that two-year stretch. To take a quick and dirty stat, his barrel rate is 11.0%. Among players with at least 500 PAs over 2021-2022, Jarred’s in the 78th percentile. Here are the folks within 0.3%. You tell me: are these guys good hitters?

Jarred Kelenic Comps by Barrel Rate and wRC+

Name Barrel% wRC+
Name Barrel% wRC+
Corey Seager 11.2% 128
Jazz Chisholm Jr. 11.2% 110
Eric Haase 11.2% 106
C.J. Cron 11.1% 113
Dansby Swanson 11.1% 107
Ramon Laureano 11.1% 104
Darin Ruf 11.0% 113
Jesus Sanchez 11.0% 102
Jarred Kelenic 11.0% 68
Freddie Freeman 10.8% 147
Kyle Tucker 10.8% 137
Willson Contreras 10.8% 121
Ji-Man Choi 10.8% 116
Sean Murphy 10.8% 113
George Springer 10.7% 135
Garrett Cooper 10.7% 121
Mike Yastrzemski 10.7% 102
One of these things is not like the others. But he does belong. Source: FanGraphs

And hold off on your screaming about his strikeouts—by K%-BB%, he’s only the third highest on this list. (We’ll talk more about his strikeouts later.) The bottom line is that this is a group of very good hitters: Excluding Kelenic, their average wRC+ is 117.

To take a stat that’s less quick and less dirty, we can look at dynamic hard hit rate, or DHH%. A statistic developed by Connor Kurcon, building off of Tom Tango’s work, DHH% essentially measures how often players are lining up their hardest contact with their most optimal launch angles. If you don’t want to read Kurcon’s post, just think of DHH% as a more fulsome version of barrel rate. It also has the advantage of being pretty sticky year to year.

By this measure, Jarred is hitting the crap out of the ball—those aren’t just show muscles (though they certainly do that). For his career, Kelenic’s dynamic hard hit rate is 13.5%. That’s the 70th percentile (min. 250 PA). In other words, Jarred’s getting optimal contact more often than two thirds of the league, as measured by the most predictive stat we have for this.

One thing DHH% doesn’t account for is spray angle. Yet Kelenic’s been optimizing that too. He’s pulled 27.9% of his fly balls, a healthy margin above the league average. That matters because you can get more power to your pull side; you don’t have to hit the ball perfectly to send it out. This is what transformed José Ramírez into a power hitter.

So if Jarred’s hitting the ball like Superman, why have his results been like Jimmy Olsen?

Jarred’s been getting very unlucky on his contact

As I mentioned above, one of DHH%’s great strengths is its predictive value. But to explain the gap between contact and results, we want wOBACON and xwOBACON. These statistics build off of wOBA, or weighted on base average, which is one of the best all-in-one offensive stats. wOBA takes the actual run values of events (for example, a double, a home run, or a walk) and scales them to look something like on-base percentage. wOBACON and xwOBACON look only at balls put in play—the “CON” is for “contact.” wOBACON measures a hitter’s results on contact, and xwOBACON measures what results you should expect based on launch angle and exit velocity. (The “x” is for “expected,” which makes perfect sense. Do not question this.) There are weaknesses here, like that it doesn’t take into account park factors or spray angle. But this is about the best we have.

Let’s look at that line drive against Detroit again.

Expected stats tell us that balls hit like this—110 mph and 16 degrees—drop in for hits 71.4% of the time with an average slugging percentage of 1.310. The xwOBACON clocks in at a hefty .853. But of course, since Victor Reyes was close enough to grab it, the actual average, slugging percentage, and wOBACON were all .000.

This has been happening to Jarred all. the. time. Like I said at the top, there’s nothing special about this line drive against the Tigers. Not that he hit the ball well. Nor that it got caught.

By wOBACON, Kelenic ranks in the bottom sixth of the league, at .317. But add an x and he jumps to roughly the top third, at .379. Is that a big gap? Oh my, yes. 365 players have accrued at least 250 PAs over 2021-2022. Of those, Kelenic has the third biggest gap between his expected results and his actual results. Third!

He hasn’t had good luck in a single month or on a single type of contact. I want to zero in on two types of contact where his luck’s been especially bad: pulled ground balls and what Statcast calls “Solid Contact,” which is something just slightly worse than a barrel.

The shift is was killing Jarred Kelenic

Let’s take the pulled ground balls first. Over his career, Jarred has hit 45 ground balls into the shift. Statcast knows those aren’t particularly likely to be extra-base hits, which is why they’ve only got an xwOBA of .207. But every hit matters, and the fact is, Jarred’s only come up with an actual wOBA of .078 on those. In simpler terms, he’s got four hits, where Statcast thinks he should have nine or ten.

Compare that to the 18 pulled ground balls he’s hit where the defense played it straight up. On those ground balls, he’s got an equal four hits.

In other words, his actual results with no shift match his expected results with a shift. But good news! MLB banned the shift starting in 2023. It stands to reason that this should help Kelenic, which isn’t necessarily true for all lefty hitters.

Jarred Kelenic stares intently at Kristopher Negron
I will be using this photo at every opportunity
Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Jarred’s solid contact has gotten gaseous results

I also mentioned solid contact. That’s stuff like this:

On solid contact, he’s produced just a .321 wOBA against an xwOBA of .510. Simply put, there’s no good reason for that.

You might think this is T-Mobile Park’s fault. As John recently discussed, between the marine layer and the limited nooks and crannies for batted balls to turn into extra-base hits, The T is the least hitter-friendly stadium. And it’s even worse for lefties than righties. But over the past two years, lefties are only barely underperforming their xwOBA on solid contact in Seattle.

To be sure, we’re chopping up just 335 batted balls into even smaller chunks, but in this case, those small samples play in our favor. It makes the results less predictive, which is what we’re hoping for. That’s especially good news since this is some of his best contact, so positive regression on this type of contact should have a big impact on his overall numbers.

To summarize, DHH% tells us that Jarred is making the most of his contact, and is likely to continue doing so. And comparing his wOBACON to his xwOBACON tells us he’s been getting atrocious luck so far, but there’s little reason to think that’ll continue.

So his contact’s been good, but what about when he doesn’t make contact at all?

History says Jarred should improve his strikeout rate

I won’t belabor this because if you’re reading about Jarred Kelenic, you know he’s got a strikeout problem. His already bad 2021 actually got worse last year, and his career strikeout rate is now an ugly 29.9%. That’s the 7th percentile among players with at least 500 PAs over 2021-2022.

And sometimes it feels even worse than that. Kelenic’s status as an elite prospect primed us to microanalyze every whiff, and his extreme reactions draw our attention and inspire a lot of armchair psychoanalyzing. It’s all so conspicuous.

It won’t go away on its own—we know he’s got real issues with breaking stuff—but there’s reason for hope. According to work by Jon Anderson, over time, players generally settle pretty close to their minor-league strikeout rates. Comparing MLB strikeout rates to MiLB strikeout rates has an r-squared of .77, which is really powerful.

Take a look at Anderson’s chart, modified to include Jarred. Over his tour of the minors, Jarred racked up a strikeout rate of just 20.6%, compared to his 29.9% in MLB. Remember Jarred’s at just 558 PAs in the bigs, and consider whether he might revert to the mean as he gets more comfortable in the majors.

The red is for Jar-red
Original chart by Jon Anderson in his excellent medium post

He’s not an extreme outlier, but he’s off on the edge. This chart uses a player’s whole minor-league career, which is more predictive than using AAA numbers alone. But AAA is more predictive than lower levels, and Jarred’s strikeout rate in Tacoma is even better, at 19.4%.

Let’s all believe in Jarred Kelenic

True enough, some hitters regularly under- or over-perform their expected results. But so far, Jarred’s been a outlier in two important categories that drag down his numbers. Maybe that’ll continue. At fewer than 600 career PAs though? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Here’s a thought experiment. Let’s say Kelenic starts getting the results that his contact suggests he should and give him a wOBACON of .379. And let’s say he just gets halfway between his MLB and MiLB strikeout rates, which would put him at 25.3%. And keep his walk rate.

This is hardly pie-in-the-sky. We’re not imagining that Marco Gonzales woke up with Andrés Muñoz’s velocity. This is stuff Jarred Kelenic’s already done.

What would that version of Kelenic look like? The back of my envelope says that’s a wOBA of about .315. With good defense in a corner and slightly above-average base running, that’s about a 3-WAR player. He’s still in there somewhere.

Jarred Kelenic jogs back to the dugout with Julio Rodriguez
A couple former #3 prospects
Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

So it’s no wonder that the projection systems see it too. Steamer projects Jarred with the third-biggest improvement in wOBA, ZiPS has him with the fourth-biggest improvement, and the BAT X, sixth.

Call it hype if you want, but at a recent press conference Mariners General Manager Justin Hollander said that the reports on Jarred’s offseason have been “over-the-top awesome,” and I believe it.

I know there are some pretty creative ideas out there about how to fix Jarred Kelenic. But I’m not so sure he’s broken.