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Player Background

Shawn Kelley was drafted in the 13th round by the Mariners in 2007 out of Austin Peay State University. He threw 15 innings in relief that summer for Seattle, striking out 18 batters and walking four. He kept striking guys out in the minors in 2008, reaching Double-A by the end of the season before making the big team out of Spring Training to start the 2009 season.

After making his debut, Kelley spent the entirety of the 2009 season in the majors in Seattle aside from a stint on the DL with an oblique injury and a few minor-league rehab appearances. In 2010, he suffered an elbow injury, pitching through it for a few appearances before undergoing Tommy John surgery in late 2010. It was his second Tommy John surgery, his first coming as an amateur during his freshman year at Austin Peay. He made it back onto a major-league mound by September 2011, but he didn’t break camp with the Mariners in 2012. He ended up bouncing between the minors and the majors all season.

In February 2013, he was traded to the Yankees for Abraham Almonte. He spent two seasons in the Bronx, scrapping his seldom-used changeup and becoming a two-pitch pitcher in the process. Since 2013, the 6-foot-2 righty has stuck with a four-seam fastball and a slider. Here’s a look at his splits between the two pitches and their velocities:

Year

4-Seam %

Slider %

4-Seam Velo

Slider Velo

2013

50%

50%

93.0

82.8

2014

42%

58%

93.1

84.3

2015

45%

55%

92.8

83.5

2016

55%

45%

93.3

83.8

After spending 2013 and 2014 with the Yankees, Kelley was traded to the Padres for Johnny Barbato prior to the 2015 season. He went on to have his best season to date while headed into free agency. In December 2015, he signed a three-year, $15 million deal with the Nationals.

What Went Right in 2016

In pretty much every way, 2016 was the best season of Kelley’s career. There were some doubts headed into the 2016 season that his vastly improved 2015 numbers were a San Diego-fueled fluke, but his numbers in Washington put that to rest. Let’s take a look at his stats over the last four years in standard 5×5 categories:

Year

Team

IP

W

SV

K

ERA

WHIP

2013

NYY

53.3

4

0

71

4.39

1.31

2014

NYY

51.7

3

4

67

4.53

1.26

2015

SD

51.3

2

0

63

2.45

1.09

2016

WAS

58.0

3

7

80

2.64

0.90

The 32-year-old has always struck out a lot of guys, posting K/9 rates greater than 11 in each of the last four years. His 12.4 K/9 in 2017 was a career best, though, as was his 1.7 BB/9. He even managed to pick up seven saves thanks to Jonathan Papelbon’s struggles, making himself a viable candidate for the closer role headed into the 2017 season.

What Went Wrong in 2016

Not much went wrong for Kelley in 2016. If there’s one thing to point at, it’s his 1.4 HR/9, his highest mark since 2010. As noted in the first table above, he threw his fastball a lot more frequently in 2016: 55 percent of the time in 2016 compared to 45 percent of the time in 2015. His GB/FB went down along with his slider usage, dropping from 1.3 in 2015 to 0.8 in 2016. A lower GB/FB means more balls that can carry over the fences. And he had an injury scare in his final appearance of the season, leaving a playoff game against the Dodgers with pain in his throwing arm. However, the Nationals confirmed a couple of weeks later that Kelley was fine, and all reports from Spring Training indicate that he has no lingering injury concerns aside from the fact that he’s a 32-year-old pitcher with two Tommy John surgeries in his past.

What to Expect in 2017

Expect more of the same in 2017. As for saves, Kelley has certainly earned a shot at the closer gig with his 2016 performance. The Nationals didn’t sign any of the big closer targets in the offseason, either, making the competition for saves in Washington an internal one. That said, given his age, injury history and proven performance as a setup man, Nats manager Dusty Baker may be reluctant to give himself a closer at the expense of his most trusted setup guy. It should also be noted that in his eight-year career, the Kentuckian has never thrown 60 innings in a season, a mark he would probably have to top if he were going to close for the entire season. He has the potential to get more than 5-10 saves and throw more than 55 innings, but I wouldn’t bet on either of those outcomes.

The Great Beyond

Given the fact that he turns 33 in April and the two Tommy John surgeries in his file, Kelley isn’t a great long-term bet. He is under contract in Washington through the end of the 2018 season, though, making him somewhat less fungible than most right-handed relievers with two pitches in their arsenal. I don’t think Kelley is a great bet for saves this year or beyond, but I do think there’s some value here, especially in NL-only leagues. There aren’t many guys with 12.4 K/9 rates and even less with 1.7 BB/9 rates, even in the current high-strikeout environment. Enjoy the Ks and the quality rate stats in deeper leagues, but don’t bank on saves, even if it looks like he has the inside track to the closer job when the Nationals head north for Opening Day.