Jim Leyland certainly does catch a lot of flak from Tigers fans. Of the many odd “strategic” moves that Leyland makes that grate on those fans, first and foremost has been to bat Don Kelly at the #2 or #3 position when he is filling in for a vastly superior bat. As our own Matt Snyder wrote earlier today: “Don Kelly is in his place in right field and will bat third(!)”
I would suggest that, for today at least, batting Don Kelly 3rd actually makes sense. If you haven’t noticed, and it’s probably pretty easy not to notice, Don Kelly is having something of a career year. If you scale up what Kelly has done in 154 PAs so far this season, he’d have 101 runs scored, 63 RBI and 17 jacks. He only has a .707 OPS, but he’d be good for 3.8 WAR (basically All-Star worthy) because he plays such good defense.
Now, I know what you’re going to say: it’s a small sample, and anybody awful hitter can look good due to an inflated BABIP. BABIP is certainly the statistic most prone to random short term variation or noise, you should be cautious if somebody seems to be having a great year and that production is solely BABIP driven (see Avila, Alex, 2011 season). But… Don Kelly isn’t looking good because an unusually large number of hits are falling. His BABIP is an abyssmal .236 for the season. If anything, we should expect a rebound in BABIP from Kelly due to “regression to the mean”. It’s something else entirely.
I have written a bit in the past about Don Kelly – and the gist of it is this: as a minor leaguer Kelly had the profile of a prototypical leadoff hitter, but not probably a major-league caliber leadoff hitter. He had a healthy on-base percentage, but not because he (like Austin Jackson) hit a lot of hard line drives but because he drew walks and kept strikeouts down. As a major leaguer, Kelly struck out quite a bit, rarely walked and developed a hitherto unseen power stroke. I passed the blame to Jim Leyland and his coaching staff, who prioritize hard hacks over working counts, for forcing a decent OBP guy to become a beanpole version of Rob Deer in an effort to earn playing time.
The jury is out there, but what we are seeing so far this season is a remarkable return to minor league Kelly – a guy who puts up decent numbers by walking more than he strikes out (something exceedingly rare, especially from a hitter that doesn’t draw walks by virtue of intimidation). Over his minor league career Kelly had 364 walks to 347 strikeouts, this year he has 20 walks to 18 strikeouts in Detroit. The strikeout rate is only down a little, but the walk rate (both this year and last) is way up. The thing that’s driving it is exactly the thing that ought to be driving it: Don Kelly has stopped swinging at pitches out of the zone (down from about 30% prior to 2013 to 20%). He’s also making better contact – with a swinging strike rate of 3.9% lower even than his career 6%.
Don Kelly has not become and is not about to become some kind of hitting god. His big problem is the exact opposite of Delmon Young‘s: Trajectory – a guy with Kelly’s body should hit more ground balls and fewer fly balls, a guy with Young’s body should hit more flies. His xBABIP is and will remain low for that reason and that reason alone. Nonetheless – his .338 OBP is the equal of Austin Jackson’s and his speed makes him, at least potentially, a better choice for a fill-in at #3 than the primary alternative (given that Torii Hunter and Omar Infante are not in the lineup, as well as Miguel Cabrera) than Jhonny Peralta.