Seattle Mariners outfielder Jarred Kelenic was supposed to be a savior. He was supposed to help pull a franchise that had been mostly irrelevant in the annals of baseball history into World Series contention. He was a very popular pick for the 2021 AL Rookie of the Year Award last year.
While the team has become much better since he was called up, Kelenic has been more of a detriment than a help. Through 494 career plate appearances (through Aug. 9), Kelenic is slashing .169/.249/.582. Since being called up on May 13, 2021, Kelenic has split time between the Major League club and Triple-A as the team looks to get his swing back in order. However, no matter what they do, the Mariners can’t seem to fix Kelenic’s broken swing.
Of all non-pitchers in MLB history with at least 490 Major League plate appearances, Kelenic has the second-worst batting average. The only player ever to record a lower career average is former Phillies infielder and Cubs manager John Vukovich, who hit .161 across 607 plate appearances between 1970 and 1981. That’s it. This isn’t a good sign, obviously. Of the 70 players to have an average of .200 or worse after at least 490 plate appearances, 53 never made it (or haven’t made it yet) to 1,000 plate appearances. They were all pushed to the minors or forced into retirement before then.
Kelenic could absolutely be among the 17 that did, but of those 17, only one, Lewis Brinson, was an outfielder. Most of the players who lasted in the Majors were catchers (10 of the 17), which makes sense given the importance of defense at the catcher position. That’s why people like Jeff Mathis lasted as long as they did, and why guys like Michael Perez, Austin Hedges, and Kyle Higashioka are all still getting ABs despite their offensive woes. That’s beside the point though. Basically, outfielders nowadays need to be able to hit. As great a defender as some may be, a center fielder who can cover a lot of ground, but can’t hit the white side of a baseball just isn’t worth it for most big league clubs.
Brinson and Kelenic have had pretty similar careers actually. Brinson was a highly-touted prospect circa 2018 before struggling in the Majors. After a few trips back down to Triple-A, he could never catch fire with the Marlins and now finds himself in the Astros’ minor league system. While Kelenic was the recipient of much more hype than Brinson ever was, Kelenic’s struggles are all too similar, arguably worse. Kelenic’s career OPS-plus sits at 64, just 10 points higher than Brinson’s career mark. Each has a little bit of pop, but a serious problem with strikeouts. Each has pretty mediocre defensive metrics, and each was supposed to be a center fielder when they were called up, only to be relegated to corner outfield duty the more time they spent in the bigs.
So, with Brinson’s career spanning more than half a decade now, it’s hard to look at Kelenic with much enthusiasm given all their similarities. I know batting average isn’t a very good stat to look at, but having the second-worst mark of all time in any category is never good. I know it’d be easy to say Kelenic will break out of this funk and become the elite outfielder we all expected him to be prior to 2021, but I really don’t think I can defend him anymore.
Can Kelenic still improve? Absolutely. It’d be hard not to, given where he’s currently at. However, expecting Kelenic to return to form after everything we’ve seen is a pipe dream. Maybe in a year or two, he can become a platoon bat with some upside in the power department, but if that’s what Kelenic’s ceiling has become, and if that’s what Mariners fans are hoping for, then they’re holding onto a miracle. It’s a shame to see how far he’s fallen.
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