Jarred Kelenic didn’t have the easiest first couple years to begin his MLB career. That was hardly an accident. Yes, his arrival was the kind that comes with fanfare, befitting the debut of a consensus top-three prospect. But although Mariner fans salivated at his potential success, opponents anticipated it with concern. So they hatched a plan.
Over his first two years, opposing managers brought in lefty relievers to face Kelenic in 94 of his 558 plate appearances. That’s 16.8% of the time. For context, league-wide, lefty hitters faced same-handed relievers in just 10.2% of their PAs over that period. It didn’t go great for Jarred. And at times, the plan didn’t even appear to make sense since Jarred was scuffling no matter who he faced. His wRC+ against righties was only 85; what were they so afraid of?
Yet they kept doing it. Considering the context of the situation, I concluded that 55 of those 94 PAs (10% of his PAs!) were situations where opposing managers called for their southpaws in meaningful part to face Jarred, specifically. Since I had to look up each game individually (and no, I absolutely do not want to talk about how much longer this took than I thought it would), I can’t compare that to the average lefty, but suffice it to say, I don’t recall teams giving this treatment to Robinson Canó or Kyle Seager, the best lefties in recent Mariners history. And that was before the three-batter minimum, which made the assault on Jarred even more significant. It often meant that an opposite-handed pitcher had to face Julio, Mitch, or Ty. That’s a pretty big sacrifice to make to get the advantage against a player who was hardly a righty masher.
It all seemed so out of proportion to Kelenic’s results. But it wasn’t a stupid idea. This is why you have a lefty in your bullpen, after all. And if they could snuff out Jarred’s fire before he even got started, they might break him and prevent a decade-long problem for themselves. It’s smart strategy to keep your boot on your opponent’s neck. Recall Mike McCarthy’s tentative approach to nursing the Packers’ lead in the 2014 NFC Championship Game, and consider whether a winner like Bill Belichick would ever take his foot off the gas like that. You must crush your enemy completely.
But Jarred Kelenic refuses to be crushed. His famous intensity has worked in his favor, as he’s kept grinding away, trying new things, never giving up. As a show of confidence after his recent hot streak, the team gave him his first start of the season against a lefty on Friday. And though he’s not an ace, Austin Gomber is not a dinger machine either, coming into 2023 with a slightly-below-league-average 1.26 homers per nine innings, even with Coors Field as his home park for two seasons. Jarred’s determination paid off when he hit the second pitch he saw as if it was the ball’s fault that Taylor and Joe broke up, punishing it 414 feet to dead center:
Adding to the moment’s catharsis, this came off a slider, a pitch that’s been a big hole in Kelenic’s game. In his first two seasons, he hit just .125/.186/.163 against them, good for a paltry .164 wOBA. That compares to a league average of .213/.269/.363, with a wOBA more than a hundred points higher than Jarred’s. You might point to the fact that this was not a particularly good slider, but Jarred’s seen plenty of hanging sliders without doing damage.
You’d think Rockies manager Bud Black would have learned his lesson and not brought in lefty Brad Hand to face Jarred with two on and two out on Sunday. Jarred smashed a fastball at 107 mph to knock in the winning run, topping off his earlier walk and stolen base. Oh, and he also made the game-saving catch in the eighth. But back to Friday’s dinger.
This was Jarred’s fourth homer in as many games, but only his first career bing bong off a slider and his fourth off a southpaw. And the crowd, at T-Mobile Park and around the hemisphere, went berserk. In addition to the spectacle of the hot streak itself, that reaction’s been striking. I’ve seen several takes from people who are so happy, not just that this means good things for their favorite team, but who are happy for Jarred Kelenic, the person. This feeling seems to have caught a lot of people by surprise since Kelenic isn’t the type of person who they might normally relate to or whose success they might feel personally invested in.
Maybe it’s because he presents as someone who hasn’t struggled much in his life. But you can’t deny that he got knocked down very hard on a very public stage. And as fortunate and gifted as he’s been in his life, he’s shown us that he’s not spoiled. When he got knocked down, he worked. By showing what a little grit can accomplish, he’s turned himself into your champion. You might find him an unlikely avatar, but it works. If Julio is here to model joy, perhaps Jarred is here to model tenacity.
It goes both ways. That loyalty that you’ve shown to Jarred has mattered to him too. After Friday’s game, he told the Seattle Times, “It’s obviously been a lot of ups and downs [the past two years]. But to know that [the fans have] got my back is super rewarding. And I’ll never be able to tell them how much I appreciate it. But that’s the stuff that, like, I will never forget that.”
To be sure, as high on this hot streak as I am, the sample size remains too small to take to the bank just yet. But even if it proves ephemeral, it has actually happened. He’s gotten a taste of the success we all want for him, capped by a homer off a lefty’s slider. It’s the Play of the Week, and for a simple reason: Jarred Kelenic never quits and neither should you.