ANAHEIM — This might be the most awkward giveaway in the history of bobbleheads.
Thursday night, the Dodgers will be giving away bobbleheads of Joe Kelly. That will be three nights after Kelly’s eighth-inning meltdown against the Angels, which served as yet another reminder to the fan base of why they’ve laid the sins of a generally shaky bullpen at his doorstep.
This was supposed to be a triumphant homecoming for Kelly, who was born in Anaheim, attended Corona High and UC Riverside and still makes his home in the Inland Empire. He’d finished a triumphant postseason for the Red Sox last year with six scoreless innings over the five games of Boston’s World Series triumph over the Dodgers, then signed a three-year, $25 million free-agent deal with Los Angeles.
The first impression of a relief pitcher is usually the one that sticks with many fans. Kelly’s first impression was six earned runs and two blown saves in his first two appearances, and it reached a point where Manager Dave Roberts kept him out of high-leverage situations to try and get his confidence back.
Monday he went to Kelly in the eighth inning of a 3-3 tie, partly because a couple of other relievers were unavailable. Kelly struck out the side, but he also walked three (one intentionally), had a throwing error on a pickoff, and threw two wild pitches as the Angels scored the winning runs without the benefit of a hit in a 5-3 decision.
So, with a 7.59 ERA, a 1.78 WHIP and a collective groan on Dodgers Twitter whenever he comes into a game, I shudder to think of what the fate of those bobbleheads will be.
Believe me, it’s not as if Kelly isn’t trying. He might be trying too hard, though he maintains he’s not overthrowing or otherwise reacting to the pressure of overcoming that first impression.
“It’s not something I think about,” he said. “It’s more about me putting pressure on myself just to perform in general. We’re a great ballclub, and I know how to perform, but … I’m gonna need to just get my stuff together.”
The crazy thing is that Kelly seemed to be rebuilding that confidence and getting out of that funk, for the most part, until Monday night. His four-seam fastball regularly is in the 98-99 range, his curve has late life and he seems to be throwing his changeup more frequently.
“At times (Monday) night, as bad as some of his pitches were, he threw a lot of good pitches, too,” bullpen coach Mark Prior said.
“It’s a consistency thing, and right now he seems to kind of lose it at moments. His last outing in San Francisco and the ones previous to that, we’d seen a lot of encouragement. Unfortunately, we took a step back but we’re still feeling positive about the direction he’s taken.”
Kelly is a tinkerer. Prior said the right-hander will mess with his delivery for timing purposes. And the pitch usage stats compiled by Brooks Baseball suggest a significant variance in fastball frequency, following some comments from Roberts suggesting his pitch sequencing could improve. In three June outings, he’s thrown 28.81 percent fastballs, 40.68 curves and 30.51 percent changeups, compared to 58.47, 23.73 and 16.95 in May.
By way of comparison, last October he threw his fastball 57.06 percent of the time, compared to 32.94 for the curve, 7.65 for the change and 2.35 for a sinker that he’s hardly thrown this year.
It is a work in progress. On Monday night he threw 31 pitches: 10 fastballs, 11 curves and 10 changeups, but 16 of those pitches were balls. Two of them sailed to the backstop, one allowing a run to score.
Roberts has insisted all along that Kelly ultimately will be a valuable bullpen asset, and he bases that on recent history. Kelly perplexed Red Sox fans during stretches of the 2018 season just as much as he perplexes Dodgers fans now, with stretches of quality pitching interspersed with stretches where his command and consistency were nowhere to be found.
“We’re talking about leverage (situations) in May and June, but this guy’s coming off pitching, and dominating us, in the World Series, so it’s not like the moment is too big for him,” Roberts said. “He’s just got to kind of work through things.”
That process, Prior said, involves forgetting what has already transpired and focusing on what he can do going forward. And the guy who coached him in college, retired UCR coach Doug Smith, is sure Kelly’s attitude and work ethic will help him get through this.
“The reason I have faith in Joe Kelly is just from what I know of him as a person,” Smith said. “He’s going to do the right things. He’s going to come back to the park, get his weights in, get his running in, get his side work in, and he’s going to be supportive of whoever goes out there. That’s the type of man he is.
“If you do those things long enough and hard enough and you have the skill set, which he obviously does, then you’ll come out of it. I truly believe that.”
If so, that bobblehead could eventually be worth something, after all.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter