Keone Kela, Probable Future Closer, But Does Not Have To Be

kela

Despite never having thrown an inning above AA, Keone Kela appears to have made the Rangers opening day roster. Injuries have contributed to Kela’s likelihood in making the 25 man roster, but Kela did earn his spot in the bigs by performing well in the spring, striking out over a batter per inning while averaging a 97 MPH fast ball in the Cactus League according to Brooks Baseball.

Kela has garnered interest among many while pitching in the minor leagues due to his elite heater which occasionally touches triple digits. Fangraphs lead prospect writer Kiley McDaniel had this to say about Kela last August when he evaluated the Rangers farm system, and listed him as a 45 future value prospect.

6’1/225 righty was low-profile 12th round pick from a Washington Juco in 2012 whose velo spiked after he signed and now sits 96-98 often hitting 100 mph. The command is below average but the curveball is above average at times and he may get a taste of the big leagues next year.

Baseball Prospectus prospect writer Tucker Blair provides a more recent lengthy scouting evaluation of Kela in BP’s Spring Training Notebook series (which you should be reading) from when he laid eyeballs on him last week while he was pitching against Oakland’s Triple-A squadron.

Kela is built like an ox, with a sturdy and tall frame conducive for a power reliever. The big righty features a large drop and drive, along with plus arm speed and extension to explode his fastball at the batter. Kela generated a solid plane on his 95-96 mph fastball, which he used to strike out the side against the A’s Triple-A squad. He also displayed a hammer curveball, showing tight rotation at 81-84 mph. The 11-5 offering was buckling the knees of batters, and mixes well with his plus-plus fastball. Kela also displayed a hard change at 87-89 mph and a split change at 82 mph, both showing average. The only refinement Kela needs in his arsenal is his command, which, if he can get to average, could turn him into a shutdown reliever in the back end of the Rangers’ bullpen.

Blair’s report is more recent and thorough, but not much has changed since last August. Kela still throws heat that explodes on the hitter, has an occasionally above average curve ball, an acceptable cambio which can do this, and he could stand to improve his command a little. Obviously, with a reliever, teams can live with below average command, and due to relievers not having to be concerned with turning over a lineup, teams can accept a reliever relying primarily on two above average pitches. However, keeping a hitter off balance with an off speed pitch, and gaining the upper hand against opposite handed hitters, is still important. The separation delta between Kela’s potential 80 grade fast ball and his change/split change is acceptable, but deception throwing the pitch out of close to the same arm angle of the fast ball is also generally important. The following chart is from an admittedly small sample of pitches thrown by Kela this spring courtesy again of the fantastic website Brooks Baseball.

Brooksbaseball-Chart

 

Again, this is from a sample of 65 pitches, and is from PITCHf/x readings recorded inside various spring training ballparks. Also, relievers do not have to be as concerned with treachery as starting pitchers do, but the release point here is still noteworthy. As one should be able to discern, the change and curve are thrown from a slightly lower, more to the right, arm angle. Big league hitters are good. Despite the fact Kela will face a smaller subset of hitters, hitters at the highest level will pick up on the fast ball being thrown from a higher arm angle at some point.

If one would like to quibble, and claim I am nitpicking, one would probably be justified. Relievers are so volatile, and can still be effective in small samples simply wielding the gas, that one would not be incorrect to state release point for a reliever is not that paramount. Truthfully, Ranger enthusiasts have reason to be excited about Kela. The Texas bullpen was one of the worst in baseball in 2014 in swinging strike percentage, and overall strikeout percentage, so a potential high leverage wunderkind relief ace should be welcomed and celebrated. However, Kela does not have to be a saver to provide value.

I have read several tweets such as this, this, this, this, and this from people whose baseball opinion I hold in high regard. Kela might be the closer sooner rather than later, but he also might not be. To witness Kela’s heat, and the fact he is strictly a reliever, the natural inclination is to think of him as a true closer. I get it. None of the tweets are incorrect. Closers are more enthralling, and enter the game in a much more riveting manner. They have their own entrance music, and the boisterous crowd is then elated because they know with three more outs, the game is over, and their team will emerge victorious. When non-closers enter games, their job is to simply protect a lead to ensure the closer has a chance to save the game later on, or to keep games close when their team is not ahead. Seldom do they enter games ostentatiously with loud music, largely remaining inconspicuous, but these, we will refer to them as holders, can be just as valuable, and are in many cases more valuable.

I am sure one has read several times that teams forfeit a decent amount of wins by choosing to refrain from using their designated saver in a non-save situation, preferring to not place him in a situation he is not accustomed to. Closers are not born, and have gotten outs earlier in games at some point in their baseball lives, but whatever. The preference is somewhat understandable from a mental standpoint. Also, managers cannot exactly predict when the highest leverage situation will occur to use their closer earlier, but more stressful situations frequently occur before the ninth inning which the relief ace could squash more easily than the less talented relievers deemed not adequate enough to handle ninth inning duties.

To prove relievers, and Kela, can be just as valuable without the saves, I will provide the reader with information obtained from the Baseball Reference Play Index. The first graph displays the fifteen most valuable reliever seasons according to the context dependent statistic, RE24, since 1988. If you want to read more about RE24, here is some information. The statistic is not predictive, but is useful in determining how effective the reliever was. Zero is league average, and is measured in runs above or below average. The relievers appeared in at least 40 games, and accumulated 1.0 rWAR. 1988 of course being the first season of the modern closer (Thanks, Tony La Russa).

Player Year RE24 Saves rWAR
Mariano Rivera 1996 41.715 5 5.0
Keith Foulke 1999 37.043 9 4.4
B.J. Ryan 2006 34.771 38 3.5
Rafael Betancourt 2007 33.665 3 4.3
Brad Lidge 2004 33.014 29 3.8
Steve Farr 1990 33.005 1 4.8
Jeff Nelson 1995 32.251 2 2.9
Jonathan Papelbon 2006 31.731 35 5.0
Tom Gordon 2004 31.297 4 4.0
Eric Gagne 2003 31.251 55 3.7
Danny Graves 1999 30.811 27 1.8
Dellin Betances 2014 30.671 1 3.7
Fernando Rodney 2012 30.467 48 3.8
Jeff Zimmerman 1999 30.343 3 3.9
J.J. Putz 2007 30.240 40 4.0

 

Mariano Rivera was the most dominant closer, and post season reliever, in history. However, his most valuable season was actually the year before he became the closer in 1996, when he served as a bridge reliever to former Ranger great, John Wetteland. The bridge reliever will probably not be making a revival anytime soon, but one can only hope they do at some point. The list is littered with relievers who could be considered closers and holders. Dellin Betances was sensational last season with the Yankees, preserving leads for David Robertson, while not being used as a saver. The next chart is the fifteen most valuable reliever seasons since 1988 using the statistic, WPA/LI, which is more context neutral, and reflective of overall talent. Read more about it here if you so desire. Again, the relievers must have appeared in 40 games, and accumulated 1.0 rWAR.

Player Year WPA/LI Saves rWAR
Mariano Rivera 1996 3.823 5 5.0
Eric Gagne 2003 3.421 55 3.7
Dennis Eckersley 1990 3.058 48 3.3
Octavio Dotel 2002 2.959 6 4.2
Jeff Zimmerman 1999 2.954 3 3.9
Rafael Betancourt 2007 2.947 3 4.3
Keith Foulke 1999 2.928 9 4.4
Eric Gagne 2004 2.891 45 2.2
Koji Uehara 2013 2.857 21 3.6
Billy Wagner 1999 2.785 39 3.8
Wade Davis 2014 2.746 3 3.7
Dellin Betances 2014 2.734 1 3.7
Rheal Cormier 2003 2.733 1 2.6
Derek Lowe 1999 2.733 15 3.4
Gabe White 2000 2.711 5 4.4

 

There is the 96’ Rivera season again. If you have forgotten, he was awesome that year, which is why many teams choose to try to convert failed starters into relievers, and why strictly reliever prospects are typically not thought of highly. The list is obviously not filled with just closers, and is also filled with many former failed starters. I think we all remember the 1999 Jeff Zimmerman season in which he made an All-Star appearance pitching out the Rangers pen. He was spectacular, and was not the primary saver. The list is not definitive, and I arbitrarily cut the list off at fifteen because of my before mentioned apathy, but one should see, non-savers can be valuable.

The next chart will display how even if relievers manage to convert a palatable amount of saves, the reliever can still actually not be that effective. Here are the top fifteen save seasons since 1988 by a reliever yielding an ERA+ below 100, 100 being league average.

Player Year Saves ERA+
Joe Borowski 2007 45 89
Brian Wilson 2008 41 95
Randy Myers 1992 38 84
Ernesto Frieri 2013 37 99
Juan Carlos Oviedo 2011 36 97
Billy Koch 2001 36 96
Jeff Montgomery 1998 36 96
Dennis Eckersley 1993 36 98
Joe Nathan 2014 35 83
John Axford 2012 35 88
Shawn Chacon 2004 35 70
Todd Worrell 1997 35 74
Carlos Marmol 2011 34 98
Rocky Biddle 2003 34 97
Jim Gott 1988 34 98

 

I remember during the 2014 offseason when Jon Daniels was criticized by a few select individuals for allowing Joe Nathan to walk, which was silly. Some of Daniels other decisions can be questioned, but allowing Nathan to sign elsewhere was justified as his ERA+ was a dismal 83. The king of this list, Joe Borowski, was actually the second best reliever with Cleveland in 2007, but still accumulated 45 saves despite not pitching very well. Borowski was out of baseball the following season. Again, pitchers can rack up decent save totals, and still not be that great. I know I am reiterating something many readers have known for over a decade, but understand high save totals do not necessarily mean the reliever pitched well. Teams know this, and you should too if you are still using save totals to signify value. If I can make a recommendation, I would advocate instead using these context dependent statistics (and the others above), which, while not predictive, at least places all relievers on equal ground statistically.

So, we know Kela can be an elite reliever, and not necessarily be the closer. Another thing to consider is that some teams have prevented their younger, cost controlled relievers from accumulating saves to ensure their salaries will not escalate when the reliever is eligible for arbitration. The arbitration process is antiquated, and still rewards young savers more so than non-savers, and some teams have taken advantage of this. While the a few of the teams who have (Oakland, Tampa Bay, Cleveland) are considered small market teams, the Rangers still have a ton of money committed in the near future to a small portion of the roster, and teams are so far not spending their exorbitant television income to increase payroll like many assumed. If Kela is better than Feliz, which is a distinct possibility, the team could still choose to prevent him from getting saves to ensure he does not become expensive in the future. Or, they could just sign him to a team friendly deal before he becomes too expensive similar to what the A’s did with Sean Doolittle.

Kela could be a terrific reliever in ’15. I have my concerns about the stressful on the shoulder over the top delivery, the off speed stuff, and his command, but he is a reliever prospect, so I am not as leery. There is not this closer off between him and Neftali Feliz, however. Kela can be just as valuable, if not more, being used in the earlier innings. And with as much precariousness surrounding the Rangers rotation as there currently is, using Kela earlier in games might be a more optimal strategy to ensure early leads are preserved for the later innings. Kela is probably the closer of the future, but he does not have to be saving games to be valuable. Even if Kela never becomes anything more than a late inning arm, one can already say they have received more than what they envisioned from a 12th round Juco selection.

Dustin Dietz
Dustin graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in Radio/TV/Film, and a minor in history. He will often write about pitching mechanics and analytical baseball stuff. You will more than likely disagree with the majority of what he writes or says. In his spare time, Dustin time travels and plays at a replacement level in slow pitch softball leagues.

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