The 6′ 2″ right-handed pitcher that A.J. Preller got for “relief prospect” Johnny Barbato made quite an impression on San Diego Padres fans back in April during the Dodgers home opener. Inheriting a tie game after Nick Vincent squandered both a 3-2 lead and James Shields’ gutsy 8K outing vs. Clayton Kershaw, “Kells” promptly issued two walks, made a fielding error covering first, and then coughed up a three-run homer to Jimmy Rollins that put the game – and any bragging rights in Chavez Ravine – out of reach. He also came off of the field with a 13.50 ERA.After a nice, clean 1 hit/1K/1 inning appearance in the “rubber” match against LA (a 7-4 loss), Kelley’s reverted to form against the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 13th, where he gave up two walks and three hits including a double and triple, in just two-thirds of an inning to turn a one-run game into a 8-4 loss to the Snakes.
This bad-game, good-game pendulum continued into the next week, with Shawn pitching a great 2K inning against the Chicago Cubs in a tight 7-6 loss, and then falling apart on April 22nd against the Colorado Rockies, giving up 3 hits, 1 BB, 1K and the winning run in a 5-4 loss.
Talk about a rough first month for a player. Let alone a reliever from the New York Yankees trying to prove his worth to a new ball club and the first-year GM who traded for him. The best thing that many could say at the time (and did on Twitter) was, “Well, at least we only gave up Johnny Barbato to get him.”
Then on April 24th, the club announced that Kelley was being put on the 15-day DL due to a left calf strain, a move that was retroactive to April 23, the day after Shawn’s third meltdown.
“It’s probably something that’s not going to take too long or very serious, but the nature of our games, they need us out there every night,” Kelley said at the time, per U-T San Diego. “I’m going to take advantage of it to continue working on what I’ve been working on and get my calf healed up. When that’s good to go, I’ll get in some games and get back.” That included addressing some mechanical issues that pitching coach Darren Balsley had noticed in games and side sessions alike.
Kelley faired well in his Triple-A return with El Paso, according to now-ex-manager Bud Black. “He was throwing good,” Black said. “I liked the fact that he went up to Fresno [with Triple-A El Paso] and went two scoreless innings, 94-95 [miles per hour] on the fastball, good slider. And then he threw again [Tuesday] night, another scoreless inning. Like most of our relievers, he’s had variable results. Shawn will fall back into the bullpen. Every game is different. It’s hitter-based, score-based, situation-based, so we’ll see how we use him.”
And then, a funny thing happened upon his return to the Padres in May. The club used him. A lot. And the more action he saw, the more effective, reliable, and filthy he became.
If you throw out his first game back on May 12th in Seattle (a cringeworthy 11-4 loss) where he gave up 4 hits and 2 ERs over 1-1/3 innings, Kelley has lowered his ERA from 10.80 in May to a remarkable 3.09 today. Over his last 25.1 innings, he’s allowed just three runs with 30 strikeouts. And his monthly results for July are ridiculous: over 8-1/3 innings, he’s given up ZERO earned runs, home runs and walks while striking out 11 and giving up only four hits.
As he told the U-T’s Dennis Lin earlier this month, “”I’m just feeling good right now. My arm feels good, body feels good. I’m executing my slider. That’s my strength, to get ahead and get guys out with it, and I’m doing that. I’m not having to feel like I have to overthrow or try to do more than I’m capable of. More so just being myself.”
Pat Murphy, who managed Kelley during his rehab stint in El Paso and then again when he replaced Bud Black in San Diego, was equally effusive about his resiliency and effectiveness since May. “I think that he’s getting comfortable. He’s on a new team, and he struggled a little bit early, took some time off. He knew what he’s capable of, and now he’s found himself.”
As it stands now, after an impressive 7-3 run over their last 10 games, the Padres find themselves at a difficult juncture. They’re only 5 games below .500, and are finally getting the kind of consistent pitching and timely hitting that have been so woefully missing for much of the season.
At the same time, they’re also a team that’s 8.5 games out of first place and stacked with attractive, trade-worthy players only days away from the July 31st deadline. And beneath the initial Upton/Shields/Kennedy/Cashner/Kimbrel/Benoit tier, you’ll find the name Shawn Kelley.
While Derek Togerson of NBC San Diego only gives Kelley a 35% likelihood of being traded, it speaks to a remarkable turnaround by a pitcher who, only three months ago, had a 13.50 ERA. And whom we got for a pitcher who’s currently bouncing between AA & AAA ball.
Critics and fans alike can harp all they want about the lack of production and consistency that A.J. Preller’s personnel moves have wrought this year, but his instincts about Kelley were dead on.
Once Shawn got his health back, the Padres and their fans got everything anyone could want out of a reliever. Including a great comeback story.