(Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire)
For as long as I have been playing fantasy baseball, I have lived by the ‘never pay for saves’ adage. No team of mine has ever, or likely will ever, owned stud relievers like Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen or Ken Giles. I’m not saying this is the ‘right’ strategy, but for those who choose to utilize it, there are always closers available on the waiver wire during the season.
I once again chose to lay low and grab fringey closers like Shane Greene, Cam Bedrosian and even (yikes) Fernando Rodney this season, with the expectation that I’ll find saves on the waiver wire throughout the summer. In my ten team AL-only league, I grabbed Zach Britton midway through the draft and promptly stashed him on the DL, using my free roster spot to pick up Rangers flame-thrower Keone Kela. At the time, Alex Claudio was expected to be the primary ninth inning guy. While that still may be the case, Rangers manager Jeff Bannister recently discussed having Claudio pitch in non-save situations. It appears the ninth inning role in Texas is open, and Kela has the stuff to not only win the job, but to become one of fantasy baseball’s strongest closers. Much of his success will rely on the improvements made to his curveball.
(Opponents have) Trouble with the curve
Keone Kela has always had a nasty curveball. The difference now is that someone finally told him. Kela’s curveball usage has gone from 31.2% in 2015, to 36.1% in 2016 and all the way up to 40.5% last year. He has virtually abandoned his other secondary, a rather unimpressive changeup, only throwing it 1.6% of the time last year.
This is great news for fantasy owners, as Kela’s curve generated a very nice 9.2 pVAL last season. Although his swinging strike rate dropped to 18.2% last year (down from 21.2% in 2016 and 26.8% in 2015) Kela was able to hold hitters to a pathetic .097 batting average and a .233 OPS.
A slight dip in velocity (82.9 mph last year, compared to 84.5 the year before) and more vertical drop (-2.7 ZMov, a career-high) helped Kela generate more weak contact than ever before. His horizontal movement was just 0.1 inches as well, making this pitch a straight 12-6. After two consecutive years with a line-drive rate over 34%, Kela held hitters to just a 15.1% rate in 2017. His fly-ball rate skyrocketed to 51.5%, with 47.1% of those being infield flies. That contributed heavily to the low average by opponents.
So in three years Kela has increased his curveball usage nearly 10% while abandoning his changeup and maintaining solid numbers with his heater. He still has issues with walks (3.96 BB/9) but if he can get that under control (no pun intended) than he has the makings of a top-ten closer. Kela has had the most issues controlling his changeup, so ideally moving away from that pitch will help him limit his walks. He only generated a 16% o-swing rate on his fastball last season, which likely factored into his high walk rate. If he can get hitters chasing a bit more often next year, there’s no reason he can’t drop his walk rate and post ratios comparable to elite relievers like Wade Davis and Edwin Diaz.
Could Kela Close?
I’ll admit it takes some squinting to see Kela as an elite closer this year. The biggest hurdle for now being opportunity. Kela could lower his walk rate and increase his strikeout rate and generally dominate, but in the vast majority of leagues he’s only relevant if he’s picking up saves. Texas manager Jeff Bannister indicated that incumbent closer Alex Claudio, “is so much more valuable than just waiting for a save opportunity.” While that’s intentionally vague, it does indicate that Claudio could be used as more of a fireman, which could open up ninth inning opportunities for Kela. Claudio and Kela are joined by Jake Diekman, Matt Bush and wildcard Tim Lincecum, who many think could fall into the ninth inning mix if he pitches well in relief.
All of this leaves the still 24-year-old Kela as a fantasy wildcard. He has the potential to take the closer role and run with it. ZiPS projects Kela with a 12.61 K/9, 3.55 BB/9, 1.12 WHIP and a 2.76 ERA next season. Those numbers, along with regular save opportunities, would vault Kela into must-own territory in all fantasy formats. However, he could just as easily sit in middle relief purgatory, pulling down the occasional hold but offering little more than a slight boost in ratios.
Fortunately, there is little risk associated with Kela at his average draft position. In standard formats, keep an eye on Kela and the Rangers bullpen situation. In deeper leagues and AL-only formats, Kela is worth grabbing near the end of drafts. Worst case, he will provide plenty of strikeouts without hurting your ratios. Best case, he finishes the season as a top-ten closer. Absolutely worth the risk, especially for those fantasy owners like me who scrape the bottom of the barrel for saves all summer.