Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Do-it-all Don Kelly Less Valuable Than Many Tigers Fans Believe

I was dared by noted troublemaker Phil Coke’s Brain to have some fun with our friend Kurt Mensching today. Please read his latest at the Detroit News here first, if you will.

The following is my response.

Don Kelly is everything right with the Tigers.

At least, that's the impression you might get by reading MY email, reading Detroit sports pages, or checking into the comment section underneath the stories I read on the Internet.

If the Tigers win, Kelly gets a mention for doing something “the right way”, whatever that is. Do the other guys somehow play “the wrong way”? Does Austin Jackson go up to the plate with a bowling pin in his hands instead of a bat?

If they lose, it's not Kelly’s fault because he isn’t counted on to be a “star”.

If Kelly starts, it's because the backups need playing time too, so lay off Leyland, no matter where he bats Donnie in the lineup.

Or because he's Leyland's favorite player.

Or because the graying, chain-smoking manager who barely has a record above .500 in over 3,300 MLB games knows best and we should never question him.

You get the point.

Kelly is the new Brandon Inge, bringing emotions far past the point of rational thought. Certain people will defend him to extreme lengths without seeing what is directly in front of their faces.

It really doesn't make any sense.

Kelly is not a starter. He is a role player. And one so poor, no other team in baseball picked him up when they had the chance. Not when he was designated for assignment late last year and not in the offseason.

Kelly has started three times in right field this year, including Monday night against the Twins, because the 37-year-old Torii Hunter may be in excellent condition, but the Tigers need him to remain that way in October. Why they won’t give the extra playing time to Matt Tuiasosopo, hitting .321/.406/.464 as of this writing, only Leyland knows.

Kelly has started four times in left field, and taking plate appearances from Andy Dirks should be seen as a mistake. The team needs to play Dirks as much as possible early in the year to see if he’s the answer out there. Otherwise, left field becomes a top priority at the deadline if the team feels Nick Castellanos and/or Avisail Garcia are not MLB ready quite yet.

Dirks, who has recently been kept out of the lineup due to a right knee injury, is batting just .196, though he hit his first home run of the season in Monday's 4-3 victory over the Twins. He is coming off what may have been a 2006 Granderson-like breakthrough season where he batted .322/.370/.487 in 344 plate appearances. Kelly is now hitting .192, six points higher than he hit in his entire 2012 campaign. We already know what Don Kelly is at the plate.

What kind of idiot defends a guy hitting .192?

People that constantly call the guy the 25th man on the roster when he has more than double the amount of games played than two other position players on the team, that’s who.

What the well-paid stars of the team do — or don't do — on a day-to-day basis matters far more than what Kelly does. But one shouldn’t ignore a problem on the team, even if it isn’t a gigantic one.

Here's what Kelly does, exactly: play first and third base, not exactly something needed when the team’s star starting corner infielders play 162 games a year. He’s played second base for two innings since 2007 and shortstop in a couple games six seasons ago. The Kelly brigade love to trumpet that as his versatility, despite it being no more than pointless trivia in 2013.

He plays left field, and right field, and can even spend time in center field. He’s not great at it, but he is the team’s third best defensive outfielder at this point. Even I admit that. But the defensive gap between him and Dirks isn’t exactly that of Torii Hunter and Delmon Young.

In a pinch he's an emergency catcher on a team that already has three players who have primarily played catcher in their careers. In theory, any player is an emergency catcher.

Being able to play a position isn't enough, of course. But the Don Kelly defender will tell you it is. “He can play anywhere!” Great. That’s why you have more than one bench player. Preferably one that can at least hit Kate Upton’s weight.

What makes Kelly nearly useless is that he doesn’t do things particularly well. His running catch in the ninth inning Sunday against the Braves that likely saved two runs was nice, but it’s hard to forget him losing a fly ball in the Metrodome roof and many poor throws from the outfield..

Would Matt Tuiasosopo or Dirks have gotten to the ball last night? Maybe, but when Don Kelly does, his fanboys and fangirls act like he’s Mike Trout out there.

You can make an argument using advanced fielding statistics that shows Kelly to be an above-average outfielder, especially in left, and at worst a neutral infielder at third. But even the biggest promoters of sabermetric stats will tell you that fielding stats are quite flawed.

As for offense, when the statistics and the eye test agree, you probably don't need me to tell you that Don Kelly is worse than nearly any other MLB player out there.

Beyond fielding, Kelly has proven to be an above-average baserunner. But he’s no Quintin Berry. Berry, 21 for 21 in steal attempts for Detroit last year, at least would bring one beneficial tool to a bench spot: amazing speed.

In 2012, Kelly was worth 1.4 baserunning runs above average, per Fangraphs.com, which, despite limited playing time, still made him the second-best runner on the team. Who was the best, you may ask? Quintin Berry, at 5.9 baserunning runs above average.

In the real world of baseball, managers need players on their bench who have multiple skills and give flexibility to deal with the different situations that arise during a 162-game season.

So what's the argument here? Kelly's holding a spot that other, more-worthy players should have? Yes. That player is Quintin Berry.

Berry’s not off to a great start at Toledo, but like Kelly, he wouldn’t exactly be around for his bat, even though he proved himself last year to be a better hitter than Kelly. His batting average was 72 points higher than Kelly’s in 2012. His OPS+ of 85 wasn’t great, but it was 42 points higher than Kelly’s pathetic 43. (An OPS+ of 100 would be a league average player.)

He’d be there for his speed, something that no one on the roster other than Austin Jackson possesses. While Berry may not have as many fielding options as Kelly, that’s where the other bench players like Ramon Santiago and Matt Tuiasosopo come in. With Torii Hunter in the outfield, the need for Kelly’s slightly better defense than Berry isn’t as important as it was a season ago with slugs like Brennen Boesch in right field.

Say there’s a tied game in the 9th inning. Victor Martinez leads off the inning with a single. Is Don Kelly pinch running going to have the potential impact that Quintin Berry would? No. To say otherwise is madness.

So really, there is a better option.

No club is stocked with all-stars, not even the Yankees at their peak.

But they didn’t usually keep around guys for five years with a career OPS+ of 69 unless they had something better to offer than multiple not needed fielding gloves and a bucketful of pleases and thank yous to the media.

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