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The Twelve Days of Free Agent Relief Pitchers: Day Nine, Keone Kela

Keone Kela is a really excellent gift from my true love, but he does need “fragile” stickers affixed before you ship him.

125A9655 by David is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Twelve Days of Free Agent Relief Pitchers: Day Nine, Keone Kela


Estimated Reading Time: 5 Minutes

The Twelve Days of Free Agent Relief Pitchers proceeds apace with Keone Kela! As I outline below, a propensity for injury made Kela difficult to rank, with good results when he’s on the mound, but lots of time off of it. Because of this, I tinkered with this ranking more than any other. But he has landed in the famed nine drummers drumming position, which I like to think he would enjoy.

Keone Kela

Keone Kela’s injury history suppresses his ranking, here, but in other rankings, it seems to make him fly under the free-agency radar entirely. He pitched exactly two innings in 2020, which, yes, would have a hard time showing up on this hypothetical technology for identifying relief pitchers in the wild. For Kela, positive Covid tests meant that he didn’t pitch with the Pirates until August 13, and two appearances later, a forearm strain ended his season.

But considering the larger picture, Kela also missed over two months in 2019 with a shoulder injury, and a similar injury cost him time with the Rangers. Since the start of his major-league career in 2015, he has pitched more than 40 innings only twice. Unquestionably, the twenty-seven year-old has proven less than durable.

However, in 2019, our most recent sample, Kela returned to pitch to a 0.50 ERA, with a more-realistic but still-excellent 2.10 FIP, for the final two months of the season. And as for this year’s forearm injury, there were optimistic reports mid-season that he was throwing off of a mound and could return. He didn’t end up doing so, but there’s no reason to believe that he would come into spring training with the same issue, particularly given a chance for a more traditional conditioning schedule.

When he’s Kela, not K-IL-a

Because when Kela is on the field, the results have been solid. All the more so since 2017, when he ditched an ineffective sinker. The Rangers made him their closer in 2018, and then traded him to Pittsburgh on the same fateful day that the Pirates also acquired Chris Archer for Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Shane Baz. (Trading Sherten Apostel and Taylor Hearn for Kela may not play out much better for the Bucs, given that he only ended up pitching 46.3 innings for them.) Kela’s fate in Pittsburgh was to serve in a set-up role, but his abilities are equal to the task of closing, even if not as an elite option.

A very respectable 30.1% career strikeout rate is key in this assessment, with a fastball that averages 97 MPH and a curve whose 36.4% whiff rate is still valuable, if not the 51.7% whiff he debuted. (You can think of this as the difference between the effectiveness of Shane Bieber’s curve, on the high end, and Sonny Gray’s.) Walks can become a problem for Kela from time to time, but with a career 1.12 WHIP, the damage is limited. A career 3.24 ERA with a 3.30 FIP suggests that what you see is what you get.

I am Jack’s complete lack of decorum

And then there’s the Keone Kela fight club, such as it is. Kela’s reputation as a hot-head may also limit his suitors, or his contract. He received a brace of suspensions in 2019, two days for an “altercation” with a clubhouse employee, and ten days for throwing a pitch near Derek Dietrich’s head. Two innings later in that game, Jared Hughes would plunk Starling Marte and chaos would erupt, in the most famous moment for the Pirates since giving up Glasnow, Meadows, and Baz. The bevy of suspensions that followed clearly saw Kela’s pitch as the inciting incident, though Kela didn’t have much of a role in the fracas itself. In this Jomboy breakdown for the ages, Kela exchanges a few words with Dietrich, and seems surprised at the blame laid at his feet and/or pitching hand.

Pitching at or near someone’s head is absolutely never okay, and this kind of behavior would temper my excitement about having him on my team, hypothetically. On the other hand, the Silver Lining Brigade would like to point out that we may not have this Mannerist composition, or this one, without Keone Kela (also pictured in the below subtweet).

I would love to draw these. The floating baseball hats are the best.

And let this also function as a friendly reminder for anyone who might want the following holiday-themed shirt. I’m not saying a night with Keone Kela would be bad. Just make sure you’re into that kind of thing.

On the 13th Day of Christmas my true love gave to me a night with Keone Kela

A look into the crystal baseball

But speaking of his contract, FanGraphs’ crowdsourcing has no prognostication, with, presumably, a crowd of zero. Given that he’s only twenty-eight and one of the younger pitchers available, I could see a two-year deal at a lower AAV, say, two years and $6 million. But I could also see his injury history mean that he’ll get no more than a one-year deal, with teams fearing an elbow or shoulder injury that will require surgery. If so, I’d imagine him to be worth $4-5 million. But teams could potentially snag a bargain with less!

Ellen Adair is an actor, probably best known as Janet Bayne in “Homeland,” Bess McTeer in “The Sinner,” and Bridget Saltire in “The Slap,” but has been in a lot of other TV shows, films, and theater that the truly curious can investigate at www.ellenadair.com. As a human being, she is best known for her unhealthy love of baseball. It says so on her business cards. She loves baseball in general, but the Phillies are her life partner. She is the author of "Curtain Speech," from Pen & Anvil Press, and is working on bringing to life a TV series about baseball writers. Connect with her on Twitter at @ellen_adair or Instagram at @ellenadairg.

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