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Joe Kelly to Make his Major League Debut

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Joe Kelly, seen circa 1885.
The Cardinals will be taking on the Cleveland Indians this afternoon at Busch Stadium, trying to win the rubber match of the series after Kyle Lohse put the team on his back last night, pitching the first leg of a combined shutout. 

Adding to the overall intrigue of watching the Cards try to win the series and climb back to something resembling respectability will be the major league debut of one Joe Kelly who, in addition to possessing the name of a Irish boxer from the 1890s, also just happens to be one of the Cardinals' more intriguing pitching prospects at the moment. Really, it's a testament to the quality of the Cards' farm system at the moment -- particularly in the starting pitching department -- that Kelly is really kind of a forgotten man, with virtually no hype whatsoever despite some very solid numbers this season in the very tough (on pitchers, especially), Pacific Coast League

So what can we expect to see out of Joe Kelly tomorrow? Besides a 116-round bare-knuckle boxing match against a man with a handlebar mustache, that is? 

Kelly was drafted by the Cards in the third round of the 2009 first-year player draft, the same draft class that produced the club's top prospect coming into the season, Shelby Miller. Kelly was, at the time, serving as the closer at UC-Riverside after having been converted to a pitcher just a couple years before. (He was originally a shortstop by trade.) I actually covered him all the way back before the draft, looking quite prescient with the simple note, "The Cardinals have shown a definite proclivity for hard-throwing college closers in recent years, and Kelly fits that profile perfectly." 

I also said way back then that the results for Kelly, particularly in the strikeout department, don't quite match up with his level of talent and stuff. Unfortunately, that statement still holds somewhat true even now, three years later. 

The Cards took Kelly on the basis of a power arm with a modest amount of mileage on it, and turned him into a starter. He's taken to the role quite well, holding his own in development while trying to flesh out a power repertoire that showed promise but was very, very raw at the time he was drafted. His fastball ranged up near triple digits as a reliever, and even as a starter he consistently works in the 92-95 range. He throws a solid changeup and a slider that I'm very lukewarm on also; the slider just doesn't generate the empty swings you would like. 

What is somewhat odd about Kelly is the lack of strikeouts, considering the quality of his stuff. He's striking out just 5.6 hitters per 9 innings this season, which is definite tick down from what he's done in the past -- facing near-major league quality competition on an every day basis will do that to you -- but even at previous stops he hasn't racked up the kind of strikeout totals you would expect from a guy who throws as hard as he does. At Double A Springfield last year he struck out 7.74 per 9, which, again, isn't bad, but it isn't eye-popping, and particularly not when you consider what his arm is capable of. 

What Kelly does do, though, and extraordinarily well, is get hitters to hit the ball on the ground. He consistently racks up extreme groundball rates with outstanding movement on his fastball; hitters just pound it into the dirt when he's on. He works from a lower arm slot; it's actually somewhat reminiscent of Justin Masterson, the Cleveland sinkerballer the Cards beat just last night, to be honest. 

I'm personally very excited to see how Kelly does; he's been kind of a pet prospect for me ever since he was drafted. (Mostly because I was amped to see the Cards actually pick a guy I had specifically mentioned beforehand; I don't get to feel smart very often, and when it happens I go kind of crazy.) I liked the arm as a reliever, and was initially a little doubtful about the plan to turn him into a starter, but I have to admit it looks like he has a real chance to fit into a rotation at the major league level. 

He's just 24 years old (turned 24 yesterday, in fact), and has been solid in his first crack at Triple A. The lack of empty swings is somewhat puzzling -- and somewhat limits what his ceiling might be -- but he's still posting some very solid numbers overall. He was bitten by the home run bug a bit at Springfield last year (lots of pitchers are), but for the most part in his career has shown an ability to keep the ball in the park. His walk rates have steadily improved as he's moved up the ladder the past two seasons, leading to a 3.35 FIP this year at Memphis in spite of the low strikeout numbers. Joe Kelly is, overall, a very intriguing pitching prospect. 

You want a comparison? Okay, how about Chien-Ming Wang, the former Yankee sinkerballer? Wang was a pitcher who, much like Kelly, always threw very hard but never struck out much of anyone, getting by on extemely high groundball rates. If anything, Wang struck out even fewer hitters than what Kelly typically does; the lack of anything resembling a swing and miss secondary pitch held him back to a certain extent. He put together a couple of outstanding seasons for New York back in 2006 and '07 (worth 4.7 and 4.4 WAR, respectively), before a series of shoulder injuries derailed his career. 

Or how about Masterson? I said earlier Kelly's arm slot reminded me of Justin Masterson's; the numbers aren't a terrible fit either. Masterson's 2010 season numbers: 7.00 K/9, 3.65 BB/9, and a 59.9% groudball rate are not at all dissimilar to what Kelly has done recently. Of course, looking at the 2011 version of Justin Masterson, when he cut his walk rate by almost one full hitter per nine innings and was worth 4.9 WAR for the season, is really encouraging, but that's probably shooting a little too high. At least right now. 

Kelly doesn't really get much attention, coming in behind the Shelby Miller/Carlos Martinez/Trevor Rosenthal/Tyrell Jenkins group of potential stars the Cardinals have amassed. There's a reason for that, too; he simply doesn't have the same kind of potential upside those guys have. All the same, though, there's plenty of reason to be excited about Kelly, who has a power arm and has gone from college shortstop to college closer to minor league starter in just a handful of years. Tomorrow he goes from minor league starter to major league starter. I, for one, can't wait to see how it goes. 
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