Kelly could become a hero

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The Red Sox have seen many low points during the 2014 season, but the nadir may have come on August 6. Four-fifths of the Opening Day starting rotation had been traded away, a clear signal that management had no interest in contending this season. Boston had lost three in a row, two to the hated Yankees and one to last season’s World Series opponent in St. Louis. Hoping to stop the bleeding, John Farrell sent a new face to the mound that night.

Joe Kelly knew his opponent well. He’d worn a Cardinals uniform a week earlier. The lineup he faced was full of friends playing for the only big-league team Kelly had ever known. Opposing pitcher Shelby Miller was the best man at Kelly’s wedding, and Kelly was best man at Miller’s.

Kelly had stood on the same mound last October, facing the Red Sox in a pivotal Game Three of the World Series, a game which St. Louis won on the famous obstruction call, when Will Middlebrooks stumbled in the path of the Cardinals’ Allen Craig as he tried to score the winning run. Playing for the Red Sox, even with Craig again on his side and John Lackey in the other dugout, had to feel like an out-of-body experience for Kelly.

The Red Sox went meekly in the top of the first. Matt Carpenter opened the bottom of the frame with a double, and by inning’s end, Boston trailed. Welcome to the Red Sox, Joe.

But unlike so many Red Sox pitchers this year, Joe Kelly didn’t break after giving the Cardinals the lead. After a leadoff single in the second, Kelly erased former Red Sox A.J. Pierzynski with a double play. Pierzynski’s single would be the last Kelly surrendered. Xander Bogaerts doubled in a run in the fourth and brought in another with a sacrifice fly in the eighth. Kelly won his Red Sox debut, another of myriad reminders that the future is still bright for the Red Sox.

One run on three hits in seven innings may sound like a dominant performance, but Kelly leaned heavily on his defense. He struck out just two batters and walked four, not an atypical route to success for the 26-year-old. In an era dominated by flamethrowers, with thirteen qualified starters and most closers averaging more than a strikeout per inning, Kelly is a relic, succeeding by inducing weak contact and keeping the ball in the park.

Among 148 pitchers who have thrown at least 250 innings since 2012, Kelly’s 5.97 strikeouts per nine innings rank 126th. He’s hardly a model control pitcher either, his 3.13 walks per nine ranking 42ndout of that same 148. He shines by limiting home runs- his .74 per nine are127thof 148 and by stranding baserunners- his 77.3% strand rate ranks 15th.

There’s certainly some luck involved in stranding baserunners and with the move from a pitcher-friendly home run park to a neutral one, there’s no guarantee he keeps preventing round-trippers, as we saw when he gave up two to the Astros this past Sunday. But Kelly has a track record of success. His 3.37 career ERA is better than Lackey’s or Jon Lester’s.

Young pitchers like Rubby de la Rosa, Allen Webster, Brandon Workman, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, and Henry Owens are all under pressure to prove they deserve a spot in Boston’s starting rotation in 2015. Even if the Red Sox trade for an ace or acquire one in free agency, Kelly, who will not be arbitration eligible until 2016, is likely to claim one of those spots.

Red Sox fans hope that will keep a few balls from clearing the Green Monster.

Bryan O’Connor lives with his wife and two baseball-loving kids in Cumberland. He writes about baseball all over the web, including Replacement Level Baseball Blog and High Heat Stats. Follow him on Twitter @replevel.