WAR Zone: Jarred Kelenic’s rise to mediocrity

Why exit velocity — and patience — never lie.

Kelenic walks to dugout wearing white home Mariners jersey.

Jarred Kelenic should probably stop kicking water coolers.

That is, unless he enjoys fracturing his left foot, which he did last Wednesday after a ninth-inning strikeout. A frustrated Kelenic suffered a lapse in judgment and ensured his spot among a long list of comical baseball injuries.

Then again, who could blame him? The water cooler was practically asking for it.

Funnily enough, it was a lack of patience that plagued Kelenic that night; the patience that Kelenic lacked for the first two years of his major league career, and the very same patience for Kelenic — from Mariners fans — that had worn extremely thin going into this season.

And it was well-deserved — because he was bad. Very, very bad.

By the end of 2022, Kelenic’s career batting average stood at .168, the second-lowest in major league history for batters with at least 550 career plate appearances. The former top prospect had hit rock bottom.

What do you do when you hit rock bottom? You dig.

And over the offseason, Kelenic must have grabbed a shovel. As of July 24, Kelenic has been worth 2.0 Wins Above Replacement, more than several All-Stars. He’s hitting the ball harder than ever and making weak contact less than two percent of the time. He’s even playing above-average defense in the outfield.

Essentially, he’s looked — and played — like an entirely different player.

And it all comes down to exit velocity. Average exit velocity takes all recorded exit velocities (in miles per hour) and divides by every batted ball event. Basically, it measures how hard you tend to hit the ball.

This year, Kelenic’s AEV is up over five miles per hour, a pretty substantial year-to-year change. At 91.6 mph, Kelenic is in the 84th percentile for all qualified batters, which explains why his batting average no longer looks like the price of a Snickers bar.

But not only is he hitting the ball harder, he’s hitting in the air less. Kelenic is hitting nearly twice as many line drives as last year and has noticeably cut down on fly balls. You have a decent shot at landing a hit on a nicely hit fly ball, but with a hard-hit line drive, it’s almost a guarantee.

The funny thing is, he was undoubtedly always capable of this.

If you can crush a ball once, you can probably repeat it. In 2022, he hit a ball 114 mph, which only 6% of major league hitters managed to do. And despite only playing in 54 games in 2022, Kelenic managed to hit seven homers, which would put him on pace for around 20, a solid achievement. He was still atrocious, but the peripherals were there; Kelenic — and the fans — just needed to be patient.

Unfortunately, baseball is where patience goes to die. With players such as Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr. showcasing superstar-level talent before they could buy a beer, fans have come to expect stardom out the gate.

The reality is, that’s not fair. Kelenic was doing this when he could have been a college undergraduate. Instead, he was one of 750 players at the top of his field. And yeah, it may have taken him a while to get comfortable, but he just turned 24. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of minor league players older than him.

With that being said, he’s still not great.

Far from bad, and not particularly close to good. He strikes out way too much — over 32% of the time — for a guy with only 11 homers. He also hits the ball on the ground nearly half the time, which isn’t great no matter how hard he hits it.

If Kelenic truly wants to ascend into the player he was once promised to become, he has plenty of work to do.

So, is he good? No, probably not. Not yet, at least. For one, he probably shouldn’t make a habit of practicing karate in the dugout. You don’t kick things in baseball, Jarred.

But he also needs to — say it with me now — remain patient. Players better than Kelenic have fallen out of the league after failing to resolve swing-and-miss problems. It would be a shame if he came this close to the mountaintop and fell right back to base camp.

Here’s the thing, though: baseball teams love mediocre. Mediocre is consistent, easy to understand, and, most importantly, not bad. When you can get “bad” from thousands of guys in the minors, mediocre can be a godsend.

Unfortunately, while Kelenic has flipped a switch in 2023, so have the formerly playoff-bound Seattle Mariners. As of July 24, they are 50-49, fourth in their division and 4.5 games out of a postseason spot.

They have struggled with consistency all year and, thanks to last Wednesday’s incident, will be without their rock for another few days. Imagine that: at one point, Jarred Kelenic may have been the most inconsistent player in the world. This year, he may have been the only thing keeping Seattle afloat.

So while Kelenic doesn’t pile on star-studded stats, he still provides tremendous value for his ballclub. He shows up, does his best to win and goes home. And right now, that’s all he should be expected to do.

If he’s able to provide a league-average bat and above-average defense, any team would love to command his services. Above all else, if he can do that every day, then the Mariners may become something serious.

After all, as the saying goes, the best ability is availability. In the minds of major league clubs, he’s probably one of the most dependable hitters out there.

And if it weren’t for that water cooler, there would be no doubt.

“WAR Zone” is a column by Dominic Varela about some of his favorite stats in baseball and the wacky stories they tell us that runs every Monday.