The Toronto Blue Jays called up utility man, Ty Kelly, recently and we dive into what he brings to the table
The Toronto Blue Jays claimed Ty Kelly back on April 10th. As per usual, the minor move necessitated a Fangraphs review of our new addition. In Kelly’s case, the main things I noticed were his defensive versatility (he has played every position except catcher in AAA) and how balanced his walk and strikeout rates were. So I started digging.
I made a couple of lists: all AAA batters with 100+ plate appearances across the 2013 to 2016 seasons (1081 players) and all MLB batters with 70+ plate appearances in 2016 (478 players). These stretches represented the bulk of Kelly’s AAA and MLB careers. I used low bars for PA because I wanted to include future MLB stars who were in AAA for a short time and because Kelly only had 71 MLB PA in 2016.
Kelly’s AAA career (1595 PA) was spread across the affiliates of the Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners, St. Louis Cardinals, the Jays and the New York Mets. Kelly hasn’t shown a lot of power (.108 ISO/698th in AAA, .102/377th in MLB), though he may have a touch more than his competition in the 2B/3B/LF backup spots—Ezequiel Carrera (.094 ISO in MLB career), Darwin Barney (.094) and Ryan Goins (.101).
His hitting value comes mainly from his excellent plate discipline. It’s impressive enough that I find it kind of weird that he hasn’t had more MLB opportunities. He’s had a long and successful AAA career (.380 OBP/77th in AAA, 0.97 BB/K/32nd) but hasn’t yet shown himself to be out of his league in the majors. In 2016, he posted a .352 OBP (93rd in MLB) and an incredible 1.22 BB/K, the best mark in the majors.
These statistics come from a small sample size of 71 PA. Which begs the question, when exactly does a sample size morph from “small” to “big enough to be a reliable indicator of a player’s true ability”? A 2012 study by Baseball Prospectus attempted to answer that question. Among other statistics, it found the number of PA that a player’s strikeout rate (60 PA), walk rate (120 PA) and on-base percentage (460 PA) become reliable enough indicators of a player’s true ability (see linked article for details). This implies that while we need a lot more PA to see if his .352 OBP will hold up, Kelly’s PA are right around the point where his 1.22 BB/K can be considered reasonably accurate.
In contrast stands Jake Elmore, the Jays’ other recent super-utility signing. Elmore also has great eye stats in AAA (.385 OBP/63rd, 1.08 BB/K/20th), but has gotten his opportunities in the big leagues (478 PA) and showed himself to be more of a AAAA player than a major leaguer (.297 OBP, 0.66 BB/K).
Kelly’s production in his short MLB stint is promising in light of his solid and diverse defensive capabilities and solid OBP in AAA. Last year, he was worth 0.4 WAR, prorated to 3.33 WAR over 600 PA (I intend that stat to come with a whole tablespoon of salt grains). Kelly even appears to have been a bit unlucky in his MLB plate appearances, posting a .260 BABIP, much lower than the .316 BABIP he has posted in his AAA career. This gives more support to the possibility that he could maintain the solid OBP he has produced in his short MLB career.
His great plate discipline is also evident in his swing rates in the MLB [once again, small sample size alert]. I divided each batter’s swing rate on pitches inside the zone (Z-Swing%) by each player’s swing rate on pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%), a stat that favours batters who swing at good pitches and take bad pitches. Kevin Pillar (1.68/462nd) and Devon Travis (1.76/449th) were in the bottom 30 last season. Jose Bautista (2.91/26th) was in the top 30. Kelly’s Z-Swing% was 2.87 times his O-Swing%, 32nd best in the majors last year. The 31 batters ahead of him had a collective .360 OBP and 110 wRC+, suggesting that if he can maintain the level of plate discipline he showed in those 71 PA, he might maintain a strong enough OBP to contribute in the majors.
He also just seems like an overall interesting guy. He may be a renaissance man and is good at Twitter:
Eric Thames and I were once traded for one another and I can see how that seems funny to you. Because we're basically the same player.
— Ty Kelly (@tykelly11) April 18, 2017
Guy on the phone next to me has been on a 10 minute rant. Then says "talk is cheap." Still ranting.
— Ty Kelly (@tykelly11) April 4, 2017
Ty Kelly fits the mould of the no-risk, high-potential pickup the front office loves to make. Ultimately, he may not stick around with the Jays long, with some roster shuffling upcoming to deal with the Happ and Sanchez injuries. He may just be sent back to Buffalo or he may be removed from the 40-man roster to make room for Mat Latos or T.J. House (last in, first out unfortunately). Hopefully he’s able to fulfill his potential in Toronto (we could use the good fortune right now). Either way, he’s got a remarkable eye at the plate and deserves a fair shot in the big leagues.
*Featured Image Credit: slgckgc UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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