Jarred Kelenic Optioned to Tacoma

marc w · June 7, 2021 at 9:03 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Jarred Kelenic, the talk of baseball after hitting three extra-base hits in his second MLB game, is in the midst of an 0-39 slump. Days after Scott Servais said publicly that he wasn’t worried about Kelenic, the M’s decided to option him back to Tacoma. For a prospect the club itself had hyped up even as it messed with his service time, this was a tough blow. What went wrong here, and who’s to blame?

There are essentially three things that could be happening here. Kelenic could simply not be as good as the hype around him; all of the evaluators, all of the minor league numbers – it could all be wrong, somehow. Or, perhaps the Mariners were right to insist on giving him more seasoning in the minors – perhaps the discussion about how many minor league PAs he’d amassed or how many upper-minors games wasn’t just a post-hoc rationalization, but was based on something real. Finally, we could be seeing an odd combination of bad luck plus an unprecedented gap between the minors and majors. Let’s take a look at each.

Is Kelenic a hype-job, and simply not anywhere near as good as people have said?


That’s it? Just “No?”

Seriously, no. There’s far too much evidence that he deserves the hype. He’s a top-10-in-baseball prospect, and has been for a year. He’s posted modest strikeout rates, and hit for power at essentially every stop along the way, and particularly in the M’s system. He struck out all of one time in the Cactus League, and while all of these stops are, kind of by definition small samples, they’re small because he hit so consistently and well. He’s seen decent pitching – not amazing, by any stretch – and dominated it at every level, save one. This is not a high draft pick getting by on so-so stats, and this is not a random guy putting up a good line in high-A. This is a player *universally* judged to be one of the best young prospects in the game, who has put up the numbers befitting that designation. Kelenic wasn’t over-hyped, he was simply under-lucked, and then started pressing. Does he have things to work on? Yes, of course. He wasn’t hitting the ball hard in recent games, and while he wasn’t striking out at alarming rates, his K rate was pretty elevated. He needs to adjust, but is not a bad hitter by any stretch of the imagination.

So, were the M’s right to insist on getting him more seasoning?


Wait, this ag

…No, sorry. The problem here is that the M’s gave the game away when they admitted that they would have brought him up in *2020* had he signed a team-friendly extension. I’m not good enough to determine exactly when a prospect is “ready,” but the M’s had decided months and months before they finally brought him up. As much as they’d like to memory-hole this, as much as it might be a helpful way to shut down complaints from a long-suffering fan base, Kelenic’s struggles do not retroactively prove the wisdom of Jerry Dipoto’s comments about his lack of professional PAs. If *the Mariners* believed any of that, they would not have brought him north after less than 30 AAA plate appearances. There’s no way to argue that those 29 PAs taught the M’s something that they didn’t already know, but it did save them the embarrassment of bringing him up before the minor league season started.

The issue isn’t simply that he didn’t have many minor league PAs, it’s that the outcry over his “manipulation” was so great, the M’s felt forced to bring him up before a more rational timeline would dictate.

Again, the M’s were perfectly content to bring him up in September of 2020. In a vacuum, you could make this claim, that the front office was somehow bamboozled by fans, talk radio, national baseball writers, whatever. That would not reflect well on the front office, but you could make that argument. The problem is that, thanks to the Bellevue Rotary Hour of Candor, we know what really happened – no one is guessing, no one is putting words in anyone’s mouth, no one is pretending to have access when all they have is an opinion. Would a more traditional amount of upper-minors seasoning have helped Kelenic? Maybe, though I’m not even sure we know that for sure, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute. But what we do know is that Kelenic had cleared whatever threshold the M’s set for him a season ago.

So what’s all this about the gap between the high minors and MLB?

Ok, thanks for asking, this is essentially why I’m writing this post. What I mean is that, for a variety of reasons, the long-standing relationship between AAA stats and MLB stats isn’t holding. Using the league translations from Clay Davenport, who’s been doing this for ages, and pioneered some of the league adjustments/projections for Baseball Prospectus back in the day, Jose Marmolejos’ AAA line is the equivalent of a big league slash line of .333/.415/.556 line. Are you, uh, taking the over or the under on that?

Here’s what I wanted to show you. In 2021, ten players have played for both the Mariners and the Rainiers. They range from uber-prospects like Kelenic to minor league roster churn like Eric Campbell, but we’ll add them all up to give us a larger sample. Those ten players, collectively, have 358 PAs in Tacoma and 583 in Seattle. In Tacoma, they had an average of .324 and slugged .571. Their strikeout rate was 20.3% and their walk rate was 8.9%. If this was one player, we would be ecstatic – there’s a reasonable amount of plate discipline, a lot of bat-to-ball skill, and plenty of power. You’d need to shrink all of those numbers (er, except the strikeout rate), but you’re starting from a really good spot.

In Seattle, these same players have hit .170, and slugged .306. Their K rate is just over 25%, and the walk rate is 8.1%. The K:BB stuff is *more or less* what we’d expect; there’s nothing shocking with an uptick in Ks and a slight drop in walks. What *is* noteworthy is the utter lack of, you know, hits. ISO is down over 100 points as well. These may as well be two completely different groups.

Is this due to spin and sticky substances and the general inhuman level of MLB pitching?

That’s a piece of it, but probably not a huge piece. Here’s a table of how well MLB rookies have fared at the plate in every season since 2009. It’s early yet, but 2021’s crop has produced the lowest wRC+ of any year in our sample. But it’s not *freakishly* low – the 2014 wRC+ of 80 is nearly identical to this year’s 79. Maybe the lesson is, whenever hitting is down in general, rookies will fare worse.

But some rookies – as always – are faring just fine. The M’s couldn’t figure out Adolis Garcia in their recent series with Texas, and they’re not alone. And as much as the talk about spin rate and artificial means to enhance it has taken off, the league-wide changes aren’t *that* big. Fastball spin is up a bit, but so is velo, and neither is up all that much. They’re up in ways that they’ve been up before, meaning the mere fact that they’ve changed cannot explain all of :gestures broadly: this.

What’s causing this? I think there several interconnected things, but it’s definitely not simply that major league pitching is completely unrecognizable to minor league hitters. It’s better than AAA pitching, but it’s *always* been better than AAA pitching. The question is what’s different *now?* One easy answer is the baseball. MLB changed the ball, making it lighter, and thus capable of more break. But it’s also deadened, so it doesn’t fly as far. AAA uses major league baseball…balls. They’re made at the same factory in Costa Rica, and completely different from the balls used in the lower levels (which are made in China). But this year, AAA is using all of the balls that went unused last year, when the season was wiped out by Covid. Thus, they’re using a ball that flies farther, but perhaps spins slightly less. Is this enough to explain the vast chasm between a .170/.306 line and a .324/.571 one? No, it’s probably not, but it might help explain why batters are struggling so much. It doesn’t help that so many of the AAA-West environments are at altitude, which further restricts pitch break. Now, that shouldn’t matter to Kelenic, who only played in Tacoma – not on the road. But anything that makes a slider look different helps shed some light on what’s going on here.

And seriously, does anyone think that minor leagues haven’t discovered sticky substances beyond pine tar? If big leaguers found SpiderTack, and there’s now a huge wage premium associated with spin rates…do you think that no one in the minor leagues has heard of it/ordered it online?

Does that mean that Kelenic’s been sent to work on things that don’t really have relevance to MLB hitting?

I mean, kind of, right? If these numbers mean anything (and it’s not just the M’s; Padres prospect Luis Campusano’s line is worse than Kelenic’s, though to be fair, he wasn’t exactly tearing it up in AAA), they mean that hitting a ton in AAA is no guarantee of anything. Given what we know about the baseballs, there’s *some* reason to believe this isn’t mere small-sample noise. So is seeing more of the pitches he knows how to hit going to teach Kelenic about the pitches he doesn’t yet know how to hit? Part of it must be getting him comfortable again, as happened with Taylor Trammell, who went from scuffling to impossible-to-get-out as soon as he went down, and, importantly, has looked better since his return. Beyond spin rates and the average weight of a regulation baseball and slider sweep, there really is something to being confident and knowing you can do something. Here’s hoping Kelenic can get back to that. Here’s hoping the M’s can make that transition, and that learning process, something easy for him to incorporate.

If the problem isn’t Kelenic, is it the M’s?

This is THE question. The club has built a reputation for being a player development colossus, but that reputation hasn’t translated into big league success at this point. I don’t mean to imply that it’s all smoke and mirrors – there are clear, demonstrated cases of players who didn’t project as big leaguers becoming big leaguers, and fringe big leaguers becoming excellent players. But Kelenic’s merely the latest player with some momentum through the minor leagues to absolutely face-plant. The team’s built its player dev name around pitching, but they’ve helped plenty of minor league hitters, too. But something seems to trip them up when they hit the big leagues. Evan White is probably the textbook example here, as he showed no real sign of the contact problems that sunk his 2020 nor the slap-hitting that’s plagued his 2021. All of that development wasn’t able to help him in the bigs, like it didn’t help Kelenic. While JP Crawford’s looked revelatory in the past week or two, the same could be said of him, even as a player with some big league time in another org: the M’s didn’t just help him work on the problems he had, they seemingly gave him new problems. This is all so anecdotal, so it’s hard to know what to make of it, but it certainly *seems* like an issue. Why did Mallex Smith implode? What the hell, Dan Vogelbach? Shed Long, now taking Kelenic’s roster spot – what happened to him even before his shin injury last year? Who’s holding the PD staff accountable for all of this, and if there is an innocent explanation (the big leagues are *hard*, bad luck, the marine layer, etc.), what is it, and how is IT going to get better going forward?


10 Responses to “Jarred Kelenic Optioned to Tacoma”

  1. Stevemotivateir on June 8th, 2021 2:01 pm

    Could it be that they dodged a bullet by not promoting Kelenic last year? Opinions on service time manipulation, and who was actually responsible for that aside, I hated seeing White skip AAA and felt that letting Kelenic dominate AA before even seeing AAA wouldn’t have been a terrible idea. He’s 21, played very little in the upper-minors and people are surprised it hasn’t been all roses? I see nothing wrong with giving both Kelenic and White the better part of this year in the minors.

    That said, the good process and decisions excuse isn’t enough. At some point it has to translate, and it’s up to Seattle to help make that happen. I want to know why this is a thing with several of their better hitting prospects and wonder if immediate changes are necessary.

    This isn’t my only concern with Seattle, either. I look at Kikuchi’s success this year and the success he had after a specific outing last season and wonder if he’s been less than honest with how he handles baseballs.

    Then there’s Graveman, Vest, Steckenrider, and the bullpen in general. Have these guys made themselves expendable for a deadline deal (Kikuchi as well)?

  2. eponymous coward on June 9th, 2021 12:00 am

    These are some warning bells, huh?

    The entire success of this tank jo- I mean, “step back” is that this loaded farm system produces a core that you can selectively add to with FAs and trades. If it’s 2023 and Kelenic is Mallex Smith 2018 with 10-15 HR power… well, that’s not going to work. At some point Dipoto has to produce some wins, right?

  3. Stevemotivateir on June 9th, 2021 12:17 pm

    They don’t have to hit on everyone. San Diego proved that.

    But it would help if at least two or three could make the shopping list shorter.

    Keeping the veterans who are productive would help as well.

  4. eponymous coward on June 9th, 2021 9:27 pm

    They don’t have to hit on everyone. San Diego proved that.

    They’ve hit huge on Fernando Tatis Jr. An MVP that’s generating 5-8 WAR is a big way to getting this to work.

    Oh, and given current ownership being skinflints… expecting them to splash out like SD isn’t a given I think.

    My point (and I think what Marc’s is) is that if this wave of kids fizzles out like the Ackley/Smoak/Saunders/Seager wave, which basically yielded Seager as anything in the All-Star realm… that’s not going to cut it. This is basically what doomed Zduriencik. They need to hit pretty big to do what they want to do (recall that nobody on this current pitching staff is in King Felix’s league yet).

  5. GLS on June 10th, 2021 12:55 am

    I’ve always believed that players need more time in the minors, the upper minors especially, than what the top prospects like Kelenic typically get. I think there’s something in the repetition and the grind that helps with adaptation to the next level of play. And when you give a player just a few weeks at AA, in most cases you’re denying him a chance to hit or pitch against the best competition in that particular league.

  6. Stevemotivateir on June 10th, 2021 2:51 pm

    Tatis is literally the only fielder they have on the roster that they developed and they didn’t even do all of the work. That was the point, and you should really stop name-dropping Marc. His thoughts are made clear by him himself (most of which I also share), and I perfectly understand what his concerns are.

    When I said they don’t need to hit on everyone, I meant that they don’t need every prospect to be a star. Obviously there would be great disappointment if guys like Kekenic, Rodriguez and Hancock prove to be less than stellar. But White? Sheffield? Dunn? Trammell?

    They could deal with that as long as they’re willing to spend and trade.

  7. Stevemotivateir on June 10th, 2021 2:55 pm

    Couldn’t agree more, GLS.

  8. eponymous coward on June 10th, 2021 4:20 pm

    You’re going to need to hit on SOMEONE (multiple someones, realistically, unless you hit on a superstar) to have an actual core capable of consistent winning. Sure, not everyone. But if your farm system isn’t producing enough someones… I’ve seen this show before under multiple GMs.

    The past 20 or so years has been this franchise occasionally hitting on Felix or Seager, but just manifestly failing on the farm with guys from A(ckley) to Z(unino), and (insert failed prospects here). It hasn’t really been a story of “we won’t spend” until recently. Adrian Beltre and Robinson Cano cashed some very large checks. So I am a little skeptical that “hey, we’ll just trade and load up on free agent silk purses if the farm system is sow’s ears” is much of a strategy.

    But hey, nice to see we can get into an argument about agreeing that the M’s farm system has to produce. Good times as usual.

  9. eponymous coward on June 10th, 2021 4:36 pm

    So how much exactly do you reconcile that with MLB player performance (as a group) being inversely correlated with time spent in the minors, and player performance peaking at age 27?

    You don’t exactly want Junior or Kyle Seager wasting a year of their prime because “well, can’t promote them, didn’t spend a full year at Tacoma or Arkansas”.

  10. Stevemotivateir on June 11th, 2021 8:03 am

    Note to self: Seattle needs to hit on SOMEONE.

    This changes everything I had previously believed (and stated).

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