The Pittsburgh Pirates won their game last night in extra innings. However, they once again saw one of their primary relievers struggle.
Coming into the season, the concerns for the Pittsburgh Pirates were in this order: shortstop, offense, fifth starter spot, young starting pitching staff in general, and then the bullpen. However, the bullpen has become one of the biggest question marks on the team. The expectation was that the team would have one of top ten bullpen in baseball that could push for a top five. Instead, their current bullpen ERA is sitting at 4.03.
The biggest issue has been the team’s setup man, Keone Kela. Kela was acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates last year at the trade deadline from the Texas Rangers; knowing that he was one of the best relievers available and one of the best bargain as well. Kela had multiple years of control and was just 25 years of age when they acquired him.
Meanwhile, he brought a fastball that sits in the mid to upper 90s and had a FIP under 3.00. Kela’s season last year with the Bucs was successful. He threw 15.1 innings down the stretch for the Pirates, averaging 13 strikeouts per nine innings to go along with a 2.93 ERA.
The results so far this year have been the complete opposite for the former Ranger closer. Kela has already thrown in eight games but has only been able to get through 6.2 innings, tossing an ERA of 8.10 and a 7.94 FIP. The two biggest issues have been his walks per nine innings and his home run rate. This actually all stems from Kela’s lack of control so far this season. He is walking just over 4.0 batters per nine innings and is giving up over 4.0 home runs per nine innings.
The biggest thing that has been noticeable is Kela is leaving his pitches up in the zone. Last year, he was able to get ahead in the count and use his breaking pitches low in the zone to generate swings and misses. While Kela has a 25 percent strikeout rate, it is about eight points down from his previous two seasons. So he is not striking out as many batters as he has before, because he is not hitting his spots. Just last night when Kela gave up the tying run, Kela hung a curveball up in the zone.
What is odd, is that Kela looks fine. He is throwing upper 90s still with his fastball reaching as high as 98 miles per hour. He does not look like he is in pain or anything like that either. So what is wrong? Chances are he is dealing with a mechanical or release point issue. The team has been trying to put him out there and work through these problems, but it is starting to become an issue.
With Kyle Crick returning from the Injured List, maybe it is time for Keone Kela to head to the Injured List with an “arm” issue. Teams do this all the time with pitchers who are struggling. This allows them to call up a fresh arm that could help while doing side work to get the “injured” pitcher back on track. At this point, that might be the best option for the Pittsburgh Pirates.