To say Jarred Kelenic’s first MLB season was disappointing would somehow be an understatement. Kelenic was a popular pick to be the 2021 American League Rookie of the Year, but ended up as a below-replacement level player. The former top prospect hit just .181 with a 28.1 K% and a .169 ISO across 377 plate appearances. He was even demoted for a month mid-season after having a batting average below .100 in his first run in the big leagues. While he improved upon getting called back up to the Mariners, it was not enough to ignore the early season struggles.
So far in 2022 (as of April 17), he has yet to look any better than his previous season. In 25 at-bats, Kelenic has three hits, only one of those being a homer, and eleven strikeouts. Although it’s just a week into the season, many are starting to fade him as it looks like the aberration of 2021 might be predictive of what’s to come over the full 2022 season and beyond.
However, I’m not worried about Kelenic’s slow start and believe he is fully capable of becoming the player that we all thought he could be. There are big steps that have to be taken in order to succeed, but he’s just 22 years old and has lots of development time ahead of him.
Player Development is Not Equal
If every prospect could be on the track that Juan Soto took, it would be easy for people to latch onto players from their debut. A prospect getting promoted at a ridiculously young age and hitting as if they belong is an incredibly rare feat, even as baseball as a whole becomes continually younger. Just because a player doesn’t light the world on fire to begin his career doesn’t mean he can’t become a superstar. Here’s a comparison of two former top prospects at the beginning of their major league career.
In the last month of the season, we saw a version of Kelenic that was a capable and promising player. He flexed his power ability in that last month while both cutting down his strikeouts and increasing his walk rate. There’s also a good chance that the insane amount of pressure got to Kelenic in his debut and it took time to get rid of that spotlight to get comfortable as an everyday player. His fantasy value didn’t completely plummet because of that last month, it was clear the tools were there.
Through his two years in the minors before 2020, Kelenic showed five-category fantasy potential. His rapid ascension through the minor leagues included a strong hit tool, developing power, and a willingness to steal bases. Outside of his time in rookie ball, the lowest wOBA he posted was .371. There was strong reason to believe that he would hit the ground running based on his time before promotion in 2021 as well, where he slashed an absurd .320/.392/.624 with a .414 wOBA.
The biggest change in Kelenic’s profile between the minors and majors is his batted ball statistics.
This table shows a few things about how Kelenic hits the ball. Most importantly, he put the ball in the air more as he progressed through the minor leagues. While it’s not entirely linear, Kelenic lowered his groundball rate and increased his flyball rate while maintaining a somewhat static line drive rate. This directly correlated to his developing ability to hit for extra bases.
When he got promoted, Kelenic stopped hitting line drives. A 15.4 LD% was his lowest value throughout his professional career. He also kept the higher GB%, opposing his trend in 2018 and 2019 where he elevated the ball more. As a result, pitchers sapped Kelenic’s power and he only produced a .166 ISO. Additionally, where he was hitting the ball changed in the majors.
Kelenic is pulling the ball 8% less in the majors compared to the minors, suggesting he was not as comfortable at the plate. That comes with time and experience in the majors, where a guy like Kelenic is still getting his feet wet.
His lack of comfort can also be identified through his struggles to hit offspeed pitches. Kelenic hit .068 on changeups, .140 on curveballs, and .180 on sliders. When he succeeded later in the season, it was, in part, due to his ability to produce against these breaking balls.
In the meantime, Kelenic has decent skills in the realm of exit velocity, which will translate more once he stops pressing at the plate. His 9.9 Barrel% ranked in the 64th percentile in 2021 and his current 15.4 Barrel% in 2022 ranks in the 82nd percentile. Usually, Barrel% is not a great stat because it looks at barrels per batted ball event instead of per plate appearance. In this case, it is helpful because we know Kelenic is working on his ability to put the ball in play, so a strong Barrel% means that good results will come as he figures it out. It’s encouraging to see that his first homer of 2022 was clocked at 114mph, indicating that there might be more power in 2022.
Kelenic isn’t going to have a completely changed approach compared to his minor league track record as he settles into the major leagues. He has shown his ability to adapt in the minors as well as in the majors, as seen at the end of last season. Especially with Julio Rodriguez now up with the Mariners, it appears that there is a lot of stress on Kelenic to figure himself out quickly this season. I wouldn’t worry though; he has the profile to succeed, and history points to Kelenic developing into a potential All-Star.
Featured image by Shawn Palmer (@Palmerdesigns_ on Twitter)