Kelenic in rarefied air with past two homers

April 24th, 2023

SEATTLE -- For all the promise that has flashed these past two months, it was the self reflection he had after his inside-out, opposite-field homer on Saturday that was maybe the most telling.

Kelenic, who’s pushed his individual accolades to the back seat in this breakout season, told Mariners manager Scott Servais that he felt that the solo shot he punched on a sinking fastball low-and-in was the “best swing of his career.”

Making the marvel even more majestic, Kelenic ripped a near carbon-copy of the big blast during his first at-bat in Sunday’s 7-3 loss to the Cardinals at T-Mobile Park. The Mariners’ blossoming slugger ambushed a first-pitch slider from Jack Flaherty on the inner half and sent it sailing 357 feet into the visitors’ bullpen.

The numbers won’t wow like his 482-foot blast at Wrigley Field on April 12, but Sunday’s showing was even more gratifying in the eyes of Kelenic, who has deliberately altered his approach this year with a premium on batted-ball location.

“Just because it's tough to take a down-and-in pitch oppo,” Kelenic said. “And when you can do that, you're catching the ball deep and staying through it. So that's ideally where you want to be. But yeah, today felt pretty similar. I took a look, and it was basically in the same spot as it was yesterday, just a different pitch. I'm in a good spot.”

As Statcast shows, the combination of location and landing spot for Kelenic's homer is rare for a lefty hitter.

Thanks to Statcast, we can contextualize how hard it is to do what Kelenic’s done the past two days.

According to the data, Kelenic is the only left-handed hitter to homer to the opposite field on a pitch that crossed the zone on the inner third this season. Within that same data, only six lefty hitters did so last year, and it’s happened only 51 times total since Statcast came online in 2015.

Again, Kelenic has now done that twice, a feat only 12 other lefties have achieved twice or more since 2015, and he's done it in less than 24 hours. The others: Shohei Ohtani, Ryan McMahon, Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman, Juan Soto, Brad Miller, Rafael Devers, Chris Davis, Eric Hosmer, Colin Moran, Christian Yelich and Bryce Harper. In other words, some of the best lefty hitters of this generation.

“I'd throw that pitch 10 times, and that's probably the only time that ball gets inside-outed for [a home run],” Flaherty said. “I’ve never seen that before.”

Servais played for parts of 11 seasons during the 1990s, when home runs took off. The player he compared Kelenic to from his era was Mike Piazza, though Piazza was right-handed.

“What made Jarred's [special] is that it's something he has worked at doing,” Servais said. “Instead of rolling that ball over or trying to pull that ball or hitting it to the pull side. ... He could not do that a year ago.”

Adding to the superlatives, the pitch from Flaherty was a breaking ball, the type of pitch against which Kelenic whiffed a whopping 39.1% of the time in his first two years. When he did make contact on breaking balls, it went for a .129 batting average. Kelenic has always been able to hit heaters, with a .425 clip this year entering Sunday; breaking through that has long been viewed as one of his biggest obstacles.

“I'm trying to just stay on the fastball and adjust and that's just what I did,” Kelenic said. “It just gives you a little bit more time to make an adjustment on offspeed pitches.”

Sunday’s homer was Kelenic’s sixth in 2023, putting him alone atop the Mariners’ leaderboard. He also paces the team in batting average (.319), slugging percentage (.667) and OPS (1.044) and ranks third in on-base percentage (.377), underscoring his significant improvements in becoming not just a contributor but a key cog.

It’s quietly put him in the conversation for American League Player of the Month for April, though he’ll have plenty of competition via Matt Chapman, Randy Arozarena, Hunter Renfroe and others. Still, that he’s even in consideration after two tumultuous years is the entire point.

How much is he thinking about how far he’s come?

“I mean, I'm not talking about it,” Kelenic said. “I haven't talked about it really much. If there's anything I know about this game, it's about, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ It's not about, ‘What have you done in the past?’ I've moved on. It is what it is, and I'm going to keep going."