It’s been tough to watch, but let’s all take a deep breath
Baked into a year filled with so many positive developments for the Seattle Mariners, Jarred Kelenic’s struggles at the plate remain a proverbial sore thumb. He’s arguably the team’s best super-prospect since Felix Hernandez. He’s also a rookie and he’s looking like it. Following in the footsteps of developmental failures like Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, Alex Jackson and Nick Franklin certainly does not help the public narrative.
Mariners fans have seen guys like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr.. and Wander Franco find immediate success at the big league level, wondering why Kelenic isn’t fitting into that bucket. I cannot stress how unusual that is for 21-year-olds. Those guys are prodigious outliers in a lot of ways.
So, maybe Kelenic isn’t an MVP-candidate right out of the gates, but few are. Chances are he will still be a very good player based on his prospect pedigree, as well as his success and metric-data at the minor league level.
It’s incredibly early. Kelenic has just 262 career at-bats; less than half a season’s worth of chances at the plate. It’s been a rollercoaster. In his second career game, Kelenic hit a changeup low-and-away out of the park for his first base hit and followed that up with a double in the same game. Since then, there’s been spurts of promise, but more consistently prolonged slumps looking rather overmatched.
I’m not going to sit here and bang the drum of “Look what Mike Trout did in his first season at the big league level!” because I think that cliché has become properly stale. Instead, it’s important to note the reasons why Kelenic should turns things around. These aren’t outlandish expectations either. Most of them fall along the lines of “Uh, just go out there and be Jarred again.”
Frankly, it all starts with his approach.
About That Approach…
One of the most befuddling parts of Kelenic’s 2021 campaign has been him being exposed to the more pronounced parts of big league pitching. His inability to adapt to being pitched backwards, as well as his struggles to adjust to how he’s being pitched has been difficult to watch at times.
The league is about cyclical adjustments to your game plan. For the last month, Kelenic can hardly buy a fastball, regardless of the count. He needs to be cognizant of that and start recognizing breaking balls both in and out of the zone. He’s not adjusting. He’s shown the ability to punish breaking balls at the minor league level. It’s time to start doing so at the highest level. Kelenic is 0 for 10 after getting to a 3-0 count and just 2 for 18 after getting into a 2-0 count this season. Baseball is hard enough. If you’re not punishing hitter’s counts, everything else is going to seem that much more difficult.
From this chair, there are two warts to address. Kelenic hasn’t adjusted to pitchers sequencing him backwards. Guys have been properly schooled on his scouting report and are flipping breaking balls in at galactic rates. It’s no secret the trend line for his impact at the plate closely models how many fastballs he’s getting. You let Kelenic get comfortable at the plate with heat and he’ll eventually figure things out. But pitchers have caught on to that trend. Because of it, he’s getting a healthy dose of soft stuff.
On the inverse, when Kelenic is receiving primarily changeups and curveballs, he’s been rendered next to useless. Over the last three weeks, Kelenic’s received an inordinate number of these pitches. Both pitches have jumped up close to ten percent in usage rate against Kelenic over the past three weeks. Over that same period, his rolling wRC+ has dropped close to 100 points.
Simply put, he’s got to adjust. The game is cyclical and Kelenic is in the midst of a rotation. Until he proves capable of handling breaking balls and off-speed stuff on a regular basis, he won’t see the fastballs he covets.
Finally, and maybe most important, Kelenic just, well, he literally just isn’t hitting pitches. I know this sounds rudimentary, but the point stands. Kelenic is swinging at the right pitches, but whiffing. In fact, his chase rate is down and his in-zone swing-percentage is up. That said, over the last 16 games, Kelenic’s contact rate on pitches in the zone has dropped from 91 percent to 76 percent on a rolling 15-game average. This, inherently, circles back to what most of us have identified as the prime culprit. The swing…
What Happened to Kelenic’s Swing…?
Since 2018, Kelenic has proven a quite capable hitter. His ~30% K-rate this season is not indicative of the player scouts have fawned over since he was 17 years old. Over the course of 894 minor league at-bats, Kelenic posted a K-rate close to 20 percent. That’s a plenty healthy number. Better still, in 143 at-bats at Triple-A Tacoma this season, he boasts a 15.4 percent K-rate. He’s more than equipped for the job. But as has been incessantly scribed about, Kelenic’s swing as currently constructed is a mess. Really, the swing in no way resembles what we’ve been accustomed to seeing over the years. Give that linked story above a read. ♫♫ It was the best of times ♫♫
Without getting too granular, there’s a lot working against Kelenic right now. The leg kick timing is broken. His hand position and subsequent push and lag in his load is causing trouble. The head drifts off-plane. The hips and shoulders can fly open. The short version? Kelenic has to be absolutely perfect right now to impact the baseball. The margin for error immeasurable.
Let’s get a bit prescriptive, shall we?
From 2019, a few things you’ll notice here. Kelenic’s head doesn’t move an inch. It’s motionless and stays on the ball all the way through contact. You don’t see Kelenic’s belt-buckle until the very last second before contact. He stays connected through his hip-shoulder separation — the torque portion of his swing. The hand-load begins with a little trigger off the shoulder and locks into a firing position. They don’t push up or lag backwards before firing. It keeps the bat path short, compact and direct to the baseball. Finally, and maybe most importantly, Kelenic’s body is in an athletic position. It can turn. He can adjust from this foundation. Kelenic’s swing in 2019 was for me personally among the best prospect swings I’ve evaluated. Fast forward to August 23, 2021…
It’s night and day. Kelenic is hunched and crouched and really limited in terms of how athletic he can be at the plate. He’s up on his toes as the pitch approaches. The leg kick is late. The hands drift up as the ball is released. The hips fly open and he’s totally exposed to anything that isn’t a fastball. Ironically, these are some of the reasons for this entire article. It’s too early to panic.
Light at the end of the tunnel…
Major League Baseball is really, really hard. Physically and mentally, Kelenic has shown he’s capable of being an impact player at this level. What he needs more than anything is an off-season to reset himself. He needs to get back into a pressure-free batting cage and rebuild his swing. Go back to Wisconsin for a few months and get comfortable. I have faith most of what we’re seeing right now is a byproduct of not being comfortable in the box, mechanical deficiencies, mixed with a touch of shell-shock.
The swing is in there. He’s shown it in Texas and New York.
If we know anything about Kelenic it’s that he’s tireless and never satisfied. This season has surely humbled him to unprecedented levels. I have no doubt he will come back to Peoria in 2022 a brand new player, totally unrecognizable from what we’ve seen this season. Right now, it’s about grinding your way through the rest of the season. That might include taking some days off to digest what you’re seeing and processing your successes and failures.
Is it time to panic? Absolutely not. Time to worry? For me, not yet. Ask me again in July 2022. If we’re still having this conversation, some goalpost adjustments may be in order.