For about 12 hours, Keone Kela had the trade deadline spotlight all to himself. It was even less when you consider that the trade happened while most people were asleep. But by 3 pm, practically everyone lost interest in the shiny object known as Keone Kela because Chris Archer became a Pirate! Archer has been tremendously disappointing (but it’s not time to give up on him completely, plenty of time to hit the reset button for 2019), but Kela has been amazing.
Kela is sporting a 100% left on base percentage which is obviously not sustainable. That’s a big reason why his ERA is 0.69, but his 2.39 FIP is great all on its own. Kela’s strikeout rate stat was very good with the Rangers this year at 10.80 per 9 innings, but he’s managed in his one month to make it great at 13.15 per 9.
What’s the secret been to his outstanding first month with team ? It’s something that Alex and many others have been preaching for the better part of a year — a de-emphasis on fastballs in favor of offspeed stuff. In this case, it’s Kela’s brilliant curveball. I briefly discussed his curve at the time of the trade and you can watch a video in that post of his 12-6 bender.
Here’s a look at his pitch mix by month this year, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
The Pirates have instructed him to throw over 10% fewer heaters and allow his cambio and curve to eat. The results speak for themselves when you see his runs/100 pitches value chart:
That +6.62 runs/100 pitches is the highest of his career, as you can see. If maintained over the course of the whole year, it would be by far the most valuable curve in all of baseball. Zack Greinke currently holds the top position at +3.28.
The uptick in curve usage is probably why Kela has seen his highest rate in Outside Zone Swing% (35.4%, up from 29.1% the rest of 2018) and his lowest Outside Zone Contact% (37.1%, way the heck down from 53.4% the rest of 2018). That’s the sweet spot of combos for pitchers.
Last year, the Pirates picked up George Kontos late in the year and he did well. It looked like he was going to be a reliable, if unspectacular, setup man for Felipe Vazquez this year. Obviously, those plans got scuttled. The same fate could befall Kela next year, but he has something that Kontos never had — a killer pitch.
With Kyle Crick in tow, the Pirates seem to have their 7-8-9 trio under control and with three outstanding options. (Side note — while looking at Kyle Crick for this story, I noticed he’s hit 6 (!) batters in the month of August. Yikes.) The Pirates can do something like a 70-30 split on giving Kela the setup duties. That’s not even including strikeout master Richard Rodriguez and the unheralded Edgar Santana in the mix, too.
Bullpens in aggregate are volatile by nature. Individual players even moreso. But with Keone Kela and his amazing curve in tow, the Pirates’ bullpen appears to not only be set for 2019, but ready to dominate.