It has been difficult to be patient with Jarred Kelenic during his time with the Seattle Mariners.
Hailed as an uber-prospect on the cusp of setting the league on fire when he was acquired from the New York Mets in exchange for Robinson Cano in 2018, the outfielder scuffled in his first tastes of major league experience in 2021 and 2022.
He hit 14 home runs in his 2021 debut season but could only manage a .181 batting average and 72 OPS+, well below the league average, which resulted in a demotion to Triple-A. He started 2022 in Triple AAA, where he demolished Pacific Coast league pitching and earned a return trip to the majors. In his return to the big leagues, the issues that plagued him in 2021 somehow worsened. While pure talent may have carried him through in the minors, an inability to lay off breaking pitches, a slow swing with a massive hitch, and a tendency to press when facing adversity led to a season going entirely off the rails.
In 54 games, his batting average collapsed to .141, and he generated an OPS+ of 54, roughly the equivalent of the top end of what you could expect from the hitting of a starting pitcher back in the days when they used to hit.
It was fair to be skeptical of the team’s proclamations that Kelenic had turned things around in his offseason workouts and then lit up spring training. I was certainly among them. Last season, before the Mariners and the Mets faced off for the first time since the 2019 trade that swapped Kelenic and Cano, I wrote that sometimes trades just don’t work out for either side, and at the time, with Kelenic just sent back to Triple-A yet again and Cano on the verge of being cut loose by the Mets following a brutal season and a steroids suspension, that certainly seemed to be the case. However, through fifteen games this season, it’s fair to say the Jarred Kelenic promised five years ago has arrived and has arrived in force. The hitch in his swing? Gone. Patience at the plate? It’s back. While several Mariners are off to slow starts, including literally every single player in the designated hitter spot, Kelenic has been red-hot. At one point, he has homered in four consecutive games.
I don’t claim to be a high-level swing coach or analyst, but it’s fairly easy to spot the difference in Kelenic’s form from this season and past years.
At the start of last season, he had a long leg kick but often started his swing, which was slow, to begin with, far too late. Even when he did something productive, like this home run early last year, his swing was slow and late, and pitchers began to take advantage. He could punish a mistake pitch, a fastball grooved into the zone, or a badly hanging breaking ball, but that was it. Any pitch with movement or sequence that started in the strike zone and then slowly worked out would end with Kellenic hacking wildly at it.
After getting demoted to Triple-A, he began an emergency, mid-season overhaul of swing mechanics. Baseball depends largely on routine mechanics. Once you have a swing style or pitching motion, for good or bad, it can be tough to try and change it on the fly. Yet, after his mid-season demotion to Triple-A, that’s just what Kelenic tried to do. After being forced into the starting lineup down the stretch and into the postseason, the long leg kick was gone, but the swing itself was still too slow and was a mechanical disaster.
This year he has restored the long leg kick but whips the bat through the zone much faster. This leads him to start driving the ball with authority all over the park. Instead of relying on pure strength to catch a mistake pitch, he has a more patient eye to lay off breaking balls and then punish the pitcher when they are forced to put a pitch in the zone.
In a tight game against the Colorado Rockies last Sunday, he flashed every tool his revised approach led to. Early in the game, he worked a walk, stole second, then stole third on a throwing error. It’s not just home runs that his revised approach at the plate has led to. With the game knotted at 0-0 and Luis Castillo at the time pitching a perfect game, he worked a 3-1 count, layed off multiple breaking balls, and then drove a low fastball into right field to give the Mariners the lead.
He also made a spectacular diving catch. In the eighth inning to preserve the lead and help get the team a 1-0 win.
Over the first ten percent of the 2023 campaign, he has surpassed every Mariners player in productivity and highlights, including reigning Rookie of the Year phenom Julio Rodriguez. Yes, it has only been ten percent of the season. There is still a long way to go, but if Kelenic can keep his renewed approach at the plate and not fall back into bad habits when he hits an inevitable rough patch, the hopes and dreams that Mariners fans had in 2018 may have finally come to fruition. It has been a payoff five years in the making, and if it sticks, it could be a transformation that gives the Mariners two transcendent outfield talents for years to come.