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Story of how Joe Kelly invented dominating new pitch 10 minutes before playoffs

01.04.17 at 9:09 am ET

Joe Kelly's new pitch helped him retire all 11 of the postseason batters he faced. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

Joe Kelly’s new pitch helped him retire all 11 of the postseason batters he faced. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

Getting classified as the best player for the losing team on the wrong end of a three-game sweep in a best-of-seven American League Division Series probably carries the same satisfaction as a participation trophy. But for Joe Kelly, the honor should mean something.

The three games he pitched in — retiring all 11 batters he faced — might represent a pretty good jumping off point for defining the reliever in 2017.

And, if nothing else, Kelly can say he managed the feat in large part to the last-minute invention of a new weapon he didn’t use once in the regular season.

Appearing on the Bradfo Sho podcast, Kelly explained:

“In the playoffs, it was all sliders. I kind of tweaked the sliders with (assistant pitching coach) Brian Bannister I think the first day in Cleveland. We held the same grip, but did something with my wrist, the way I cocked it a little bit different and I played catch with them warming up before batting practice for about 10 minutes. I liked how it spun, and he liked how it spun and how it went straight down and disappeared, kind of like a Chris Archer-type slider. I got into the game and I shocked to it because I wanted to test it out and got a good swing and miss on it. So I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to keep throwing it.’ There was one point probably in my third appearance in the playoffs where 10 of my 13 pitches I threw were all sliders. I didn’t want to throw it that much but I kind of fell in love with it because it was generating so many swings and misses and so many foul balls and weak contact. It was something I learned probably 10 minutes before Game 1. I was like, ‘You know what, why not?’ That is kind of my personality. If I see something I see works, or I think will work, it’s something I’m going to try.

“It’s another game. It’s just baseball. It’s something where I know they were scouting me. The hitters were saying, ‘OK, high velocity fastball thrown in the top of the zone, and he’s bouncing curveballs. If I break out a third pitch they hadn’t seen, obviously on the video, it was something I thought I had the advantage on their hitters because I didn’t throw it prior to the playoffs. It ended up working and I saw some really bad swings and some really bad timing. Guys were baffled because they didn’t know I had that pitch. I kept throwing that pitch just because it probably wasn’t in the scouting report and it got more swings and misses than I thought it would.”

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So now Kelly is heading into spring training with a chance to join newly-acquired Tyler Thornburg, Matt Barnes, and, eventually, Carson Smith, as a candidate to set-up closer Craig Kimbrel.

The righty had already started to establish his identity as a high-leverage reliever, holding opposing hitters to .180 batting average, while striking out 20 and walking just three, in his 11 games after being recalled from Triple-A Pawtucket. During that span he was charged with just one run (the walk-off grand slam by Mark Teixeira on the night the Sox clinched the American League East in Yankee Stadium).

He had accomplished the month-long success thanks to better command of a 100 mph fastball, and a revamped curveball that came from the same arm slot as his heater. But now he has his new slider, which maxes out his repertoire heading into the new season.

“One hundred percent,” said Kelly when asked if those were the three pitches he would be leaning on from Day 1 in 2017. “That’s what my game-plan is, trying to simplify pitching for this season.”


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