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Let’s overreact to Jarred Kelenic’s hot start

Early signs of hope (and a cause for concern)

Jarred Kelenic #10 high fives manager Scott Servais #9 of the Seattle Mariners before the game against the Cleveland Guardians during Opening Day at T-Mobile Park on March 30, 2023 in Seattle, Washington Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

It’s early. It’s too early. But who can resist? Jarred Kelenic is carrying a scorching Spring Training over into a first couple weeks that are, well, less scorching, but still quite toasty [edited to reflect Tuesday’s game] still scorching [edited to reflect Wednesday’s Statcast-breaking homer] MAMA MIA.

Through his first ten games, Jarred’s hitting .333/.405/.636, good for a .442 wOBA and a 194 wRC+. Last night’s two walks, double, and colossal home run have been the exclamation mark, capping two impressive clutch hits to start off this week, a double to take the lead in extra innings on Sunday and a 414-foot four-bagger on Monday that tied the game in the ninth.

The Mariners, seeking balance in the universe, squandered these big moments, but it’s been encouraging to see nonetheless. And I doubt I’m alone in being unable to focus on just about anything else. After last night’s game, we could use a palate cleanser; the Discourse demands a Jarred post.

But first, let’s get one thing perfectly clear. No useful statistic has stabilized yet. Everything we’ve seen out of Jarred and everything we’re going to discuss here could very well be noise rather than signal. So please take this post in the spirit in which it is intended: a look at trends to watch moving forward to see whether they turn out to be sustainable or not.

To get it out of the way, let’s start with the biggest cause for concern: the strikeouts are still too high. Through Tuesday’s game, Jarred had struck out 27% of the time, which is better than the clusterfart of his first two years, but still well above league average. But I like the process underlying 2023’s punchouts much better than what came before. He’s swinging less, but making more contact. I think that’s a real change in approach; I believe that he’s more actively hunting his pitch.

The bad news is that he’s watching more pitches go by. Worse yet, 10 of his 24 called strikes (through Monday) have been in the heart of the plate, and even more worryingly, 8 of those 10 have been fastballs. To be sure, he’s only gone down looking three times, and two of those were borderline pitches that I don’t have any problem with. That suggests that he’s doing a good job of adjusting his approach and getting swing-happier with two strikes to protect the plate. But by not pouncing on middle-middle (or middleish-middleish) heaters, he’s finding himself in pitchers’ counts too often. This is something I’ll be watching closely moving forward.

Kelenic’s 2023 called strikes

But that seems to be the cost of feeling good about the pitches he’s swinging at; he’s increased his contact rate to be above league average for the first time in his career. His 9.6% whiff rate, a statistic that stabilizes much sooner than strikeout rate, is below average for the first time in his career. But even being average or a little bit above, is something we can live with, given the quality of his contact. The strikeouts remain the biggest hole in his game, but at least he’s going up there and hacking away a lot less than he used to.

Alright, we’ve taken our medicine. How about that spoonful of sugar?

When I wrote about why I believe in Jarred Kelenic in February, I highlighted two major ways that he’d been getting unlucky on contact. I am pleased to report that the bad luck has not (so far) continued into 2023.

First, we looked at the way that Jarred Kelenic would probably benefit from Emperor Manfred banning the shift, something that wasn’t necessarily going to be true for all lefties. You’ll recall that in 2021-22, Jarred was just 4 for 45 on pulled grounders into a shift. So far this year he’s 3 for 6 on pulled ground balls. Are these hits impressive? Who cares. A hit’s a hit. And he’s proving to be a menace once he’s on the base paths, already 2 for 2 in stolen bases, neither of which was particularly close.

To be sure, he’s at a .444 BABIP on his ground balls (whether pulled or not), which will come back to Earth. But when it does, I think it’s likely to be closer to the league average than the .136 BABIP he ran on grounders in his first two years.

The other thing we looked at in February was his wOBA on what Statcast calls “solid contact” massively underperforming the wOBA that Statcast would have predicted given the exit velocity and launch angle. In his first two years, his solid contact produced just a .321 wOBA against an xwOBA of .510. But this year, we’re looking at a result of .628 against an expected result of .634. It’s just four batted balls, of course, but it’s what we want to see.

The main thing here is that we thought his bad luck on contact wouldn’t continue forever. Looking at all of his contact, solid or otherwise, we saw this:

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.

And what do you know, Statcast still has him underperforming his expected results on contact this year (.588 v. .647), and maybe there’s something to his batted balls that’s not accounted for in expected statistics (spin maybe?). But when .588 is your underperformance, what does it matter? What’s more, he’s gone from the third unluckiest hitter to a much more normal 107th out of 316. Once again, the sample is too small for that to be a number that you can take to the bank, but it’s what we thought was possible. In a big enough sample, some people really are unlucky. We’ve talked before about Violet Jessop enduring three shipwrecks in five years. Maybe Jarred was fated to be one of those people. But 2023 at least suggests he’s going to get the positive mean reversion we’d expect.

But even more than the statistical changes, I’ve really been pleased with a few pieces of anecdotal evidence. On Friday, he made the type of mid-at-bat adjustment that the best hitters are able to do:

And on Sunday, he began the game with two of his uglier strikeouts so far. Jarred’s reactions to strikeouts have always attracted commentary, with on-field microphones frequently picking up strings of profanity. But in Sunday’s game, rather than spiraling, he came back to work an eight-pitch walk off Emmanuel Clase, one of the best pitchers in baseball, and followed it up with what should have been the biggest hit of the game.

Finally, last night, he did the thing that had me so high on his Spring Training performance. His four homers in the Cactus League were great, but we’ve always known that Jarred has some pop. I loved his spring approach because none of his homers were pulled. What’s going to make Jarred successful is to prioritize making contact rather than trying so hard to yank the ball over the fence in left field. Jarred doesn’t have to ape José Ramírez; he’s strong enough to succeed as a spray hitter. So far, he’s carrying that approach over into the regular season, and it’s working. Holy cow is it working.

I’m going to say it again: it’s too early. Ten good games isn’t enough to let us say that he’s the hitter we thought he could be. The strikeouts remain concerning. But we’ve seen more reasons to be encouraged than discouraged. Let’s call it “proof of concept.” I still believe in Jarred Kelenic.