Behind Keone Kela’s Struggles and How To Fix Them
In 2015 at age 22, Keone Kela was a revelation. While this came as no surprise to those of us who watched him tear through the Texas League, a 2.39 ERA in his rookie season exceeds the expectations of almost everyone. In 2016, that number is up to 6.10 in a limited 20.2 innings sample size. Why hasn’t the flame-throwing reliever been able to repeat his success thus far?
First, let’s take a statistical look at Kela’s struggles in his sophomore year. His strikeouts leapt from 27.9% to 34.8%. Among pitchers with 20 or more innings thrown this year, that places him first on the Rangers and 16th in baseball (side note: Dellin Betances strikes out 45% of his opponents and may be overqualified as a human). Kela’s swinging strike rate is still around 13%. Clearly, there is nothing wrong in the missing bats category.
The former 12th rounder’s batted ball profile appears to give no worries either. He’s allowing fewer line drives and getting more ground balls and as a result, his 2.94 xFIP, a number which attempts to account for only strikeouts and walks on an ERA scale, suggests there’s nothing wrong at all. His climbing walk rate (2.69 to 4.35) isn’t great, nor is the higher exit velocity against (88.3mph average to 90). The stats say his ERA may just be small sample size noise.
With nothing in the stats revealing an easy answer, let’s look at his zone profiles, courtesy of brooksbaseball.net.
Here’s something. After working consistently down and glove-side with his fastball a year ago, Kela has been all over in 2016. He’s showing a greater tendency to leave pitches up, and a worrying percentage of middle-middle heaters.
The changes aren’t as noticeable with the curveball, but the pattern is the same. He hasn’t buried his curve as well below the zone (from 57.71% below the zone to 51.95%) and is leaving more middle-middle. The curveball below the zone accounts for a huge portion of the right hander’s whiffs and any decrease in his ability in spotting the pitch, results in less effectiveness. Of the 80 breakers Kela has thrown below the knees this year, 30 have been swung and missed at (a 37.5% whiff rate.)
There are easy explanations for the command regression. One is that Kela simply over performed in 2015. He’s always been walk-prone throughout his minor league career. The other is that he’s still working back from his injury earlier this year. This theory carries less water, as his zone profiles looked similar pre-injury. However, we’re working with such small sample sizes in this case that it’s futile to confirm or deny anything.
Let me present a third theory: a mechanical change. I’ve pulled a curve from his first career strikeout against Brett Lawrie in 2015, while pulling a curve from his most recent outing. On both pitches, the catcher set up low and outside giving Kela the same intended target. I’ll present freeze frames from each throughout his delivery until we find the difference.
Maybe a little less coil but nothing significantly different here.
Same delivery to this point.
No sign of flying open early (glove arm is a pulled a little farther in the more recent picture, but if you’ll take a look at his lead foot you’ll notice that I paused the bottom picture a split-second later).
Here it is. Here’s the change. Notice how his chest is parallel to the ground in the first picture, with his upper body and plant leg at a 90-degree angle. In the second Kela isn’t finishing as far with his upper body, leaving himself at an obtuse angle. The difference is even more profound at the point of catch.
Kela isn’t finishing his delivery as strongly as he did in 2015. This explains why he’s leaving more pitches up, and as a result getting hit harder.
This article shouldn’t scare you. This isn’t a post-mortem of some left-for-dead pitcher. Kela is a young arm with dominant stuff who has been the recipient of some bad luck this year (his 30.8% HR/FB ratio is completely unsustainable). He’s missing bats, and his ERA will come back down to reality as he logs more innings. However, the struggles haven’t been entirely induced by bad luck. His control and command have regressed, and there looks to be a mechanical reason behind that. With about a month and a half to go in the regular season, it will be interesting to see if those issues rebound. If they do, it could return Kela to his status as the best reliever in the Arlington bullpen.
Videos used for screenshots from MLB.com.