Kelenic's new approach at plate is paying off

April 11th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Daniel Kramer’s Mariners Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

quickly fell behind 0-2 after watching a middle-away fastball blow by him in the top of the 11th inning on Sunday. He then took two steps out of the batter’s box, stared down at his barrel and exhaled before climbing back in.

These moments, specifically with two strikes, marred Kelenic’s first two big league seasons, over which his flashes of elite potential have been outweighed by struggling to consistently meet lofty expectations. But if last weekend’s series in Cleveland has shown, maybe he’s turning a corner.

Kelenic worked the count full after laying off a few tough pitches on the edges then scorched a 107.8 mph, go-ahead RBI double off the right-center wall off a middle-middle fastball to lift the Mariners to a lead. Ultimately, Cleveland responded in walk-off fashion an inning later, but Kelenic -- as were many other Mariners hitters -- were in line to be the hero.

Kelenic’s mantra throughout an epic Spring Training has been “getting my pitch,” and this sequence was a perfect encapsulation of that overhauled approach.

Across his first two seasons, Kelenic had a 29.9% strikeout rate (league average was 22.9%) and reached two strikes in 305 of his 558 plate appearances, more than half. In those moments, he went 27-for-276, good for a .098/.184/.203 (.387 OPS) slash line. His 27 hits with two strikes were MLB’s fewest among 296 hitters that had at least 250 at-bats with two strikes in that span.

“I feel real comfortable right now, focusing on trying to get my pitch and really trying to carry that over into two strikes,” Kelenic said.

Strike one, in so many ways, was proverbially strike two, and strike two -- on hundreds of occasions -- became an out.

After his would-be game-winner that went for naught on Sunday, Kelenic scored an insurance run after a wild pitch and sacrifice fly from Kolten Wong, who badly needed a productive day. Kelenic came away from the weekend with a 5-for-13 showing with two RBIs and three strikeouts.

The 107.8 mph double showed that Kelenic was close to his first homer, especially considering he leads the Mariners -- by a mile -- with a 61.1% hard-hit rate (anything 95 mph off the bat). And sure enough, he broke through with a massive, 411-foot shot on Monday at Wrigley Field, which mashed off the right-field videoboard.

His efforts on Sunday saved a game that the Mariners led all afternoon until the would-be final out, when Teoscar Hernandez bobbled a ball while attempting to make an over-the-shoulder catch with two outs in the ninth inning. And Monday’s homer tied the game in the ninth of an eventual loss.

Kelenic was in line to be the headliner, and if he keeps hitting this way, maybe he will be sooner than later.

“I don't look too much into the past,” Kelenic said. “I'm feeling really good right now. I know as a team, we're feeling great. That's all that really matters at this point.”