Why Mariners fans should not give up (nor lower their expectations) on the young star
Watching Edwin Díaz strike out the side and close out a Mets win earlier this season stung a little extra for Mariner faithful. It gave fans an opportunity to evaluate the current returns of the blockbuster trade that truly kickstarted the Mariners makeover back in 2018, sending veteran 2B Robinson Cano and the stud closer (Díaz) to the Mets in return for a package headlined by the coveted Jarred Kelenic. The first piece of the Mariners rebuild and former top overall prospect found himself in transit to AAA Tacoma instead of New York, this past roadtrip, in what was poised to be a revenge tour for the fierce competitor. Not only that, but it gave even more life to a question that many have begun to ponder: is Jarred Kelenic a bust?
I think it’s important to remind ourselves of a few things when it comes to young players. In comparison to other professional sports, baseball requires significantly more development for players beginning their professional journey, and that is especially true for players signed out of highschool or an equivalent age. We often forget just how rare it is for players to break onto the big league scene at an age as young as Jarred Kelenic who was 21 when he made his debut last year. Even more rare is when these players find success immediately, which may be overshadowed by the hot start of fellow Mariner Julio Rodríguez who is truly a generational talent and athlete. In reality, many of the current stars of Major League Baseball took far longer into produce sustained success at the big league level. Superstars Aaron Judge (Yankees) and Tim Anderson (White Sox) didn't hit their major league stride until their age 25 and 26 season, respectively. Perennial MVP candidate Jose Ramirez (Guardians) played parts of three seasons in the big leagues until he figured things out at the plate. Kelenic’s teammate, J.P. Crawford, was a former top prospect who debuted in 2017 is only just now experiencing his breakout season. The takeaway here is that Kelenic, 22, is still extremely young and writing off his career at this point is ridiculous.
Taking a look around the league, it’s easy to overlook that multiple top prospects are struggling to begin their careers, including Spencer Torkelson (Tigers) and Bobby Witt Jr. (Royals). More seasoned former top prospects like Jo Adell (Angels) have also struggled in their initial stints in the big leagues. Not only is offensive production down across all of MLB, but the effects of the COVID pandemic are apparent for young players. The canceled 2020 minor league season essentially stunted the development of countless prospects even for those that were invited to their teams alternate sites, as there’s no equivalent to facing in-game pitching. For Kelenic, who dominated at the alternate site, his lack of actual professional experience is often overlooked. Prior to 2022, Kelenic had played only 203 games of professional baseball before making his debut. For comparison, Ronald Acuña Jr. (Braves)and Fernando Tatis Jr. (Padres) played in 259 and 276 professional games before their MLB debut, respectively. In a game where development is contingent on getting competitive reps., these minor league games absolutely matter for player growth. The simple fact is that Kelenic has far fewer developmental at-bats than some of the game’s brightest young stars.
Although there are several factors that can lead to success at the big league level for young players, perhaps the most important is the ability to make adjustments to big league pitching and their tailored game plans. Kelenic crushed his way through each minor league level despite him often being one of the youngest players in each of them. After a strong spring training and short stint with Class-AAA Tacoma, the expectations for Kelenic could not have been any higher. His struggles the majority of the 2021 season point to just how significant the jump is between minor league and major league pitching in terms of talent, experience and scouting. After his debut, opponent pitchers overwhelmed Kelenic with a steady stream of offspeed and breaking pitches down and below the strike-zone. Prior to his strong final month of the season, Kelenic struggled to make adjustments to this opponent gameplan. As the graphic above shows, Kelenic swung and missed at nearly half of all pitches low and beneath the zone with minuscule production (.081 batting average) on those pitches. Fortunately, Kelenic did begin to show increased plate discipline on these pitches which translated to a productive month of September, giving fans hope that he would truly take off in 2022.
Well, opponent pitchers did what they’ve always done when hitters find success: alter the gameplan. The graphic above highlights the pitches that Kelenic swings at in comparison to the rest of the league. As we can see, Kelenic is chasing pitches — primarily fastballs — up in the zone at a far higher rate than league average. After coming into this season with a refined approach at the plate, it seems as though Kelenic was unable to adjust to opponent pitchers’ new strategy for getting him out. “It just wasn’t free and easy,” is what Manager Scott Servais had to say about Kelenic’s struggle at the plate. In the plate appearance before his demotion Kelenic struck out looking on a pitch in the heart of the plate, encapsulating his season-long difficulties in two-strike counts. For both Kelenic and the Mariners a demotion made a lot of sense.
Once in Tacoma, Kelenic struggled out of the gate with a very high strikeout rate but has since begun to catch fire. While the strikeout rate is still higher than the organization would like, the power production to all fields is on full display — just check out this opposite field 3-run HR from a recent game. This should come as no surprise since his raw power has always been a part of his game, evidenced by a max exit velocity in the 95th percentile among all big leagues prior to demotion. Couple that with elite defense in the corner outfield and you have a player that is tantalizingly close to putting everything together. Servais recently reported that they want to see Kelenic maintain his current approach at the plate as well as handle the slumps and rough games that will inevitably occur across a long season. Much has also been made about Kelenic’s maturity (or lack thereof) during his time with the Mariners. Many fans will recall the countless helmet/bat slams and self-cursing during his struggles, or perhaps Kelenic’s supreme confidence that looked more like arrogance at times. A significant aspect of development is mental, which is an area that Kelenic continues to grow in with each passing day.
For the long-term development of his on-field abilities and headspace, it would be wise to let Kelenic spend a significant portion of this season in Tacoma until he’s proven that he can make adjustments and sustain them in the face of adversity. At this point in his career, time and experience may be the only thing holding Kelenic back from realizing his lofty potential. Mariners fans will just need to be patient and remember that the story of 22 year-old Jarred Kelenic is only just beginning. For a player as passionate and competitive as he is, I have no doubt that he’ll figure things out before long and play a key role on this team for years to come.
And there’s certainly no denying his desire to bring playoff baseball back to the Pacific Northwest.