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Jarred Kelenic: 2022 Fantasy Baseball Bust?

Seattle Mariners outfielder Jarred Kelenic, one of the top prospects in baseball going into last year, still has a great chance of becoming an MLB superstar. That may seem like a semi-obvious statement when you’re dealing with a 22-year-old with the prospect pedigree of Kelenic, but before diving into “bust talk,” that’s just something that needed to be said.

From a fantasy (and real-life) perspective, Kelenic flashed every skillset you’d like to see from a prospect during his time in the minors. In his last full year in the minors, split between Single-A and Double-A in 2019, he slashed .291/.364/.540 with 23 home runs and 20 stolen bases over 117 games. Then in 2021 at Triple-A, he raked his way to a 1.016 OPS over 30 games before getting the call to the big leagues. So yes, there’s a lot to like about Kelenic’s skill set and he will have every opportunity to be an absolute fantasy stud at some point.

However, fantasy managers need to go into drafts for season-long leagues projecting Kelenic’s chances of success in 2022 alone. Right now, his ADP, which is around 135 or so, isn’t accounting for the risk attached to him. It’s been inflated by his prospect pedigree and the likelihood that – at some point in the future – Kelenic will be a fantasy mainstay. But there’s good reason to believe that 2022 won’t be that breakout year for Kelenic and with the rest of today’s article, we’ll cover why.

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2021 Recap

By absolutely all measures, Kelenic was a disaster in the majors last year. He played in 93 games and slashed .181/.265/.350 while striking out 28.1% of the time. Some of his counting stats weren’t horrible as he tallied 14 home runs and six stolen bases, but they didn’t come close to making up for his dreadful contact hitting and troubling plate discipline. Bottom line: he was unstartable for fantasy managers during the bulk of last season.

Kelenic looked overwhelmed by big-league pitching throughout 2021, especially during his first month in the majors. Over his first 23 games, he had just four extra-base hits and he struck out a total of 26 times. He had a measly slash line of .096/.185/.193 during that stretch.

Mariners manager Scott Servais threw Kelenic right into the fire upon his callup last year. Kelenic hit leadoff in 17 of his first 18 games. However, his struggles led to Servais dropping him in the order and that adjustment helped Kelenic ease into things – more on that later.


Underlying Metrics

Unfortunately for Kelenic, his peripheral stats were every bit as ugly as his surface stats. One look at all the ugly blue numbers on his Statcast page on Baseball Savant will tell you most of the story:

Kelenic’s .219 xBA shows that he was a bit unlucky with his .181 batting average, but it also shows that he didn’t have much room for growth. Essentially, his numbers show very few signs indicating the profile of a promising and reliable contact hitter. What’s even more worrying is when you pair those contact-hitting woes with his concerning power metrics. His 20th percentile average exit velocity (87.5 mph) and his 37th percentile hard-hit rate (39.2%) make it seem as if he was fortunate to hit the 14 home runs he did hit.

Kelenic’s batted ball data on Fangraphs brings up some additional concerns:

He had a line drive rate of just 15.6% in the majors last year, well below his line drive rate at Triple-A in 2021 (23.1%). Kelenic has a track record of heavy ground ball hitting that dates back to his time in the Mets organization. Although it never really hurt him much in the minors, his MLB struggles could have been partly due to his high 42.9% ground ball rate in 2021.

Kelenic had been primarily a pull hitter and opposite-field hitter in the minors. At Triple-A last year, he pulled 42.9% of his batted balls while 31.4% of his batted balls went to the opposite field. However, during his time with the Mariners, he hit a ton of balls to center field, amounting to 34.5% of his batted balls, up from just 25.7% in Triple-A last year. Meanwhile, he saw decreases in both his pull rate (40.5%) and opposite field rate (25.0%) in the majors. This disparity was likely due to his inability to gain command on big-league pitching. He may have had trouble reading pitches or he could have had some trouble with timing, swinging a bit too early or a bit too late.

His pitch tracking breakdown shows that fastballs didn’t completely crush him last year, but he struggled significantly with breaking pitches and offspeed offerings:


2022 Mariners

The Mariners are a team on the rise. They came out of almost nowhere to finish 90-72 last season. They were just two games behind the two Wild Card Game competitors: the Yankees and the Red Sox. The team already boosted their roster this offseason by signing 2021 AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray to a five-year, $115 million contract. So yeah, they’re going for it.

Kelenic could get another shot at hitting leadoff for the team, but if he struggles again, a Mariners team that should be competitive this year likely won’t have the patience to keep him up there. It’s more likely he’ll hit somewhere between fifth and ninth in the lineup, meaning fewer at-bats and fewer opportunities for runs and stolen bases.

The Mariners’ success last year could certainly be regarded as a bit fluky. They were the only team in the American League who finished above .500 but had a negative run differential. And not only was it negative, but it was also decisively negative at -51. As a comparison, their division rivals, the Oakland Athletics, finished the year four games behind the Mariners but had a +56 run differential. By most accounts, the Mariners were one of the worst offensive teams in the majors last year. They finished dead last in batting average (.226), 27th in OPS (.688), and 22nd in runs per game (4.3). All of that is to say that no matter where Kelenic ends up in the team’s lineup, he likely won’t have the most inspiring supporting cast.


Reasons for Hope

Finally, to the good stuff!

As mentioned, Kelenic made some improvements as the year went on. Here’s a look at his month-by-month splits:

Kelenic struggled significantly from May through July, then slowly started to turn things around in August. September was distantly his best month as he hit exactly half of his 14 homers on the year and slashed .242/.321/.537.

If he hadn’t ended the season on a positive note, Kelenic wouldn’t have some of the 2022 fantasy draft momentum that he has now. Even though his full-season numbers are ugly, the fact that he progressed from month to month is a strong indication that he just needed some extra time to adjust. If he can continue his late 2021 season growth into 2022, then he could indeed become a fantasy mainstay by early this season.


Where to Draft

Look, there’s no denying it: Kelenic is a fun, exciting player to take a shot on in the early double-digit rounds of drafts.

However, I can’t emphasize enough that you’d be making a mistake drafting him while you still have starting roster spots to fill. So yes, based on the current status of his ADP, that means I’m suggesting you just outright avoid him. If he falls outside of the top-200 (unlikely), then that’s a different story and he’d certainly be worth gambling on there. But in the top-150, there are so many other players who have both a safer floor than him and some of those players have comparable (if not more) upside when considering just 2022 alone. Some outfielders being drafted near him include Trent Grisham, Joey Gallo, and Adolis Garcia – all players who have proven to be must-start outfielders in recent years and all of whom will have better lineups around them this year than Kelenic will.

In conclusion, don’t lose hope in Kelenic delivering on his prospect pedigree, but also don’t let your excitement for his superstar upside compromise the depth you put together in this year’s draft.

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