New-look swing is behind Kelenic's breakout

April 21st, 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.

Welcome to this week’s edition, which features a guest appearance with a good buddy and Friend of the Newsletter, David Adler, who breaks down Jarred Kelenic.

If you want to see the proof that 's breakout is finally here, look out to center field. Way out. 482 feet out.

Kelenic's monster home run to dead center at Wrigley Field isn't important because of how far he hit it. It's important because of where he hit it.

That homer is the perfect symbol of why the 23-year-old's hot start to 2023 is for real. Look at the spray chart of Kelenic's hits this season:

The big thing that should jump out is that cluster in center field -- including the 482-foot home run. Kelenic isn't just using the middle of the field, he's driving the ball there with authority.

Kelenic is slugging .950 to straightaway center, making him one of the most dangerous hitters in the league in the middle third of the field. He has five extra-base hits to center -- two doubles and three homers. Only J.D. Martinez and Matt Olson have more.

Highest SLG to straightaway center, 2023
Min. 20 balls hit straightaway

1. Olson: 1.095
2. Kelenic: .950
3. Tyler O'Neill: .750
4. Ronald Acuña Jr.: .727
5. Freddie Freeman: .667

That's a key indicator that Kelenic's new-look swing, which the Mariners have made so much of, is working. In Spring Training, manager Scott Servais said: "You are going to see more balls in the middle of the field." Well, now the numbers are there.

Kelenic's power to center is the product of his revamped approach, which is different this year at every link of the chain: from his upright stance to his low hands during his load, to the more vertical attack angle in his swing -- which lets him keep his bat in the hitting zone longer and square the ball up more consistently. He looks freer at the plate than he ever has.

"I am swinging hard," Kelenic said. "But I just think that where I'm catching the ball, I'm catching it in a consistent bat path, and that's what is making it look really effortless. And that's what you want in a swing."

With a more efficient bat path, Kelenic is making more efficient contact: A third of his batted balls have been either "barrels" -- Statcast's top tier of contact, balls hit with the ideal exit velocity and launch angle for extra-base hits and home runs -- or "solid contact," the next best thing.

Highest % of barrels + solid contact, 2023
Min 40 batted balls

1. Matt Chapman: 42.3%
2. MJ Melendez: 35.0%
3. Jorge Soler: 34.8%
4. Olson: 34.1%
5. Kelenic: 33.3%

Those hard-driven balls are replacing the easy outs Kelenic gave defenses way too often last year. He's cut down on popups dramatically, from a 15.5% popup rate in 2022 that was one of the highest in the league to a 2.4% popup rate so far in 2023. And he's cut down his frequency of getting under the ball -- in other words, hitting lazy fly balls -- from over a third of the time in 2022 to under a tenth of the time in 2023. That means he's staying on the plane with the baseball better.

"During the offseason, I'd say, was when I knew [it had clicked]," Kelenic said. "I don't have all the answers, but I have an idea of how the swing is supposed to work."

This new version of Kelenic even extends to his bat -- Kelenic has swapped out his traditional Victus bat this season for a new model with the "hockey puck"-style knob that Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado have adopted to generate more bat speed.

Lo and behold, Kelenic is hitting the ball a lot harder this season, and his quality of contact has gone from bottom of the barrel to elite.

His underlying Statcast metrics echo his stat sheet. They say he's a top-10 hitter in baseball right now.

Kelenic's year-to-year changes, 2022 to '23

Avg. exit velo: 86 mph to 92.2 mph (+6.2 mph)
Hard-hit rate: 35% to 54.8% (+19.8%)
Barrel rate: 13.6% to 16.7% (+3.1%)
Expected BA: .172 to .313 (+141 points)
Expected SLG: .351 to .690 (+339 points)

For Kelenic, this is the difference: "Making sure I'm on time and swinging at strikes. Those are the two biggest things."

Stay on time, you'll drive more balls to the middle of the field. Swing at strikes, you'll hit more balls hard.

Kelenic has reduced his chase rate from 28.2% to 22.1%, while swinging at pitches in the heart of the strike zone a career-high 79.2% of the time. That explains the huge improvement in his swing-and-miss rate, which has dropped from 33.3% in 2022 down to 22.2% in 2023, and why his increased amount of contact is also better contact.

Let's go back to that first chart of Kelenic's hits this season, but look at it from another view: the pitch locations.

They're concentrated within the heart of the strike zone. That means Kelenic is attacking the right pitches.

He has 14 hits off pitches in the heart of the zone. Only Alex Verdugo, Chapman, Bryan Reynolds, Ian Happ and Olson have more.

"If they're throwing nasty pitches just off [the plate], just below [the zone], and you're not chasing, they've got to come to you at some point," Kelenic said. "I'm not missing the mistake, and that's all there is to it."