As anyone who follows the Pirates can attest, Keone Kela’s 2019 season has started off as poorly as Elsa’s choice of grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. After Tuesday night’s debacle, Kela has an unsightly 8.10 ERA. His strikeout to earned run ratio is 1.33. He’s allowed runs in five of eight appearances.
It’s enough to melt your face, so to speak.
And while Kela isn’t the only member of the Pirates bullpen that’s struggling, he’s certainly the most prominent. After all, Kela is the set-up man. If Tuesday night is any indication, he’s also the closer when Felipe Vazquez is unavailable. Kela’s appearances are generally going to be high leverage situations.
With that in mind, the questions surrounding Kela become more urgent. What do you do with a reliever that appears to not have his best stuff? Do you move him out of the high-leverage position until he finds his groove and hope that a demotion doesn’t shatter his confidence? Or do you simply hope he pitches himself out of the funk?
Or, worse, what if this isn’t just a rough patch? What if it’s not just a bump in the road, but the start of a downward trend and signs of something more concerning for the Pirates?
The general narrative surrounding Kela right now is that he’s a slow starter, and there’s some truth to that. In terms of traditional stats, Kela held an ERA of 6.23 after a May 6 meltdown in 2017, and a 6.55 ERA after a trio of disastrous outings in 2018. Kela’s off to a headstart compared to the previous two seasons, but he’s tended to frontload his troublesome outings.
A deep dive into Kela’s pitches tends to support this narrative. Using numbers from Baseball Savant, I pulled pitch data for the 2017 and 2018 seasons, as well as the start of 2019.
We’ll start with Kela’s curveball. Jason Rollison of DK Pittsburgh Sports had a great comparison in year-over-year changes on Kela’s curve from 2018 to 2019. As Rollison notes, while Kela’s spin rate on the curve is largely unchanged, hitters have been more aggressive against the pitch, and more successful:
“As things stand, Kela is allowing a .367 xwOBA figure on contact among in-zone pitches, another startling increase from his 2018 .284.”
That’s a huge difference. A comparison of all curveballs from Kela over the past two-plus seasons would seem to confirm those numbers. Kela is getting good vertical movement on his pitch, and he’s earning more called strikes, but his whiff rate is down over 7%. When hitters swing at Kela’s curve this season, they’re making contact.
If we dig a little deeper, we also find that Kela’s curve has fared worse compared to previous early season appearances. Below are the same numbers for only March and April outings.
If there’s any silver lining to be found, it’s that a large ratio of balls put in play are falling in for hits. If those numbers normalize, the curve can still be an effective pitch.
Fastball and Furious
But while the curveball appears to be having an off start, it’s Kela’s fastball that’s much more concerning. A comparison of his annual stats paints a pretty grim picture.
While the exit velocity on Kela’s fastball is near the low seen in 2017, his xwOBA is up over 6%, and, just as concerning, Kela is unable to avoid contact. A mere 20.6% of Kela’s fastballs are called strikes or whiffs. Hitters are putting a bat on Kela’s heater, and the results have not been good for Pirates fans.
But wait! There’s more! Those numbers also aren’t in line for BABIP regression. Three of the hits allowed on a Kela fastball have been hit out of the park, meaning they don’t count as “in play.” A quick look at Kela’s BABIP for the season shows he’s actually been somewhat lucky (.231). If anything, this could get worse before it gets better.
If you’re hoping that this is also part of the “slow start” narrative, I’m afraid I have a bit more bad news. While the exit velocity on Kela fastballs was similar in the opening month of 2018, the strike rates are still nowhere close. The curveball numbers are consistent, but the fastball strike rate (called strikes + whiffs) is trending downward.
If there’s any silver lining, it’s actually Kela’s effective velocity. Over the past two seasons, Kela’s velocity has trended higher in the later months, and that’s led to less contact. So even while the expected wOBA of balls put into play has trended up, opportunities have been fewer and farther between.
The hope for Kela’s fastball lies in its velocity. If he finds another gear, a chance exists for him to avoid the contact plaguing him this season.
Time to Kill
Given how well Nick Burdi is pitching out of the Pirates bullpen, it’s fair to wonder whether Kela should be demoted until he can pitch himself out of this funk. But pitchers, like most baseball players, are creatures of habit and yanking him now could shatter Kela’s confidence, worsening an already tenuous situation.
With that said, the Pirates can’t let Kela’s leash extend forever. If his fastball continues to be ineffective, it may be time for his role to change in favor of someone more effective.