Cubs Sign Sidearm Reliever Trevor Kelley to Minors Deal

The Cubs continued one common and obvious trend while possibly hinting at a subtler one Monday when they signed 27-year-old righty reliever Trevor Kelley to a minor league deal. More on that in a bit. A former 36th round pick out of North Carolina by the Red Sox in 2015, Kelley split time between two levels of Boston’s system each season until he made his MLB debut in 2019.

He wasn’t very impressive across 8.1 innings and was claimed off waivers by the Phillies in December of 2019, then made four appearances for them before being designated for assignment in August. Now he’s joining a Cubs organization as one of many different relievers who will be fighting for spots in a bullpen that figures to feature a whole lot of reclamation projects.

That’s the more apparent trend, but I like how this shows the Cubs’ affinity for pitchers with funky deliveries. They loved Steve Cishek during his time on the North Side, even if that love meant Joe Maddon overusing the submariner. Former Cub Joe Smith was brought in largely because he had a little funk as well.

More current examples include lefty Kyle Ryan, who they brought back on a pre-tender deal, and righty prospect Scott Effross, who was actually converted to a sidearm delivery during the 2019 season. Then there’s Dakota Mekkes, whose deceptive mechanics might finally be seen in Chicago this season

Kelley isn’t swimming at Cishek’s depth, but he still has one of the lowest arm angles in the game and presents hitters with a very different look. Common sense would lead you to believe his delivery would be much harder on righties, who might feel he’s throwing from behind them, but Kelley has carried pronounced reverse splits as a pro.

That’s still been the case at the MLB level, though it’s not exactly promising to see that he’s allowed lefties to hit .294 with a .397 wOBA. In an outstanding campaign with Triple-A Pawtucket in 2019, however, Kelley held lefties to a .096 average and twin 0.61 ERA and WHIP marks. Whether it’s nerves or something else, he simply hasn’t been able to avoid contact at the highest level.

Like most sidewinders, Kelley relies more on deception than velocity, living mainly in the 80’s with a sinker/cutter/slider combo. Another application of common sense would tell you that’s a recipe for a lot of grounders, but he’s only gotten them at a 16.7% clip during his abbreviated MLB tenure. He was around 35% on average over the previous three seasons in the minors, much lower than you want to see.

I’ll be interested to hear thoughts from Craig Breslow or anyone else in the Cubs’ pitching infrastructure as to whether they believe a tweak to Kelley’s mechanics, specifically his pitch grips, could turn his results around. It might not take much to generate a little more sink and dramatically improve those groundball rates, thereby unlocking the potential he showed as a prospect.

That will probably have to wait until spring training, so put a pin in this one and we’ll circle back in a couple months.

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