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Washington Nationals’ Shawn Kelley on solid first half, more sliders the better...

One of the pleasant surprises of the “first half” of the 2018 for the Washington Nationals has been the return to form of right-hander Shawn Kelley.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Pittsburgh Pirates Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON, D.C.: “More sliders the better, right?” Washington Nationals’ reliever Shawn Kelley asked rhetorically when the fact that he had thrown the pitch more often during the first half of the 2018 campaign than he’d thrown it in either of his two previous seasons in Washington, D.C. was brought up recently.

Against his slider, which he’s thrown 47.9% of the time in his 31 appearances and 28 13 innings over the first-half of the 2018 campaign, (up from 43.7% in 2016, and 40.9% last season), opposing hitters have put up a .128 BAA, down from .206 and .179 in ‘16 and ‘17, respectively,

More importantly for Kelley, who gave up nine home runs on his fastball last season, on just 289 fastball total before he was shut down for the season with elbow issues, with opposing hitters putting up a .323 AVG on the pitch, a year after he gave up just two on 505 pitches with a .183 BAA, he’s held hitters to a .232 AVG on the pitch so far in 2018, though five have left the yard.

“I think last year I was just really struggling with my health and my extension was really bad and I don’t think — my body wasn’t as prepared,” Kelley explained when asked what’s been different with his fastball in the first 96 games this season.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

“This year I really focused more on trying to get my body moving and working better to take some pressure off my arm,” he said, “whereas last year I was a lot max-effort, kind of all arm, and I think when I started to lose a lot of my extension I lost that deception on my fastball, which I guess they call ‘spin-rate’ now, but that late life that I’ve always had where I’ve been able to get even 91-92 to be able to put it past somebody, I wasn’t getting that last year, guys were just teeing off on my fastball, so I think just being able to have a little bit more late life, and a little bit more consistency in my slider and I know it sounds simple, but I think it just all boils down to health.”

Kelley was very good in the first year of his 3-year/$15M deal with the Nationals in 2016, with a 2.64 ERA, a 2.79 FIP, 11 walks (1.71 BB/9), 80 Ks (12.41 K/9), and a .193/.232/.403 line against in 58 innings, then not very good in 2017, with a 7.27 ERA, 8.62 FIP, 11 walks (3.81 BB/9), 25 Ks (8.65 K/9), and a .266/.339/.624 in 26 innings, but it was the increase in home runs, up from nine in his 58 IP (1.71 HR/9) in ‘16 to 12 in 26 last season (4.15 HR/9). He’s back down to five in 28 13 so far in 2018 (1.59 HR/9).

“I think when you’re fighting yourself health-wise,” Kelley explained, “at the end of the day you’re just like, ‘Just get through this, just try to throw strikes,’ and you’re throwing a lot of balls down the middle with not a lot life, it’s — in today’s game where everyone is trying to hit homers it’s not a very good philosophy for pitching, ‘Throw it down the middle.’”

“I’ve always been a guy I’m going to give up homers, and I think the one thing I’ve always done is I don’t let a lot of guys on base, I throw a lot of strikes, I don’t walk a lot of guys, so hopefully when they do hit them they’re solo homers and they’re not really as big of a deal, last year they were hitting them with guys on base because I just wasn’t very consistent.”

As noted above, Kelley gave up 11 walks total in 2016 (1.71 BB/9), but gave up 11 in less than half the innings in 2017 (11, 3.81). He’s given up five so far this season (1.59 BB/9).

“I’m going to give up homers from time to time because I’m aggressive and I throw strikes and I attack guys, but if I can stay healthy for a whole year I’ve proven in my past what I’m capable of for an entire year so for me it’s just health.”

The difference, in addition to the rededication to using his whole body as opposed to only his arm, as he mentioned above, was the time he took off late last season, and a stem cell injection he received after he shut it down in late September, which was considered as an alternative to surgery for a pitcher who’d had two Tommy John surgeries and was dealing with bone chips in the elbow.

“I shut it down last year eventually after fighting it down all year and we did the stem cell procedure which is not a cure-all but I think it cleaned up a lot of stuff in my elbow, maybe some of the minor stuff,” Kelley said.

“And just the rest and coming back to Spring Training really focused on my body and my shoulder and my back, and areas that can take a little bit of the load off of my elbow that’s obviously been through a lot, I think all those things just kind of contributed to being a little bit healthier this year.”

Through 31 games and 28 13 IP, Kelley has put up a 2.54 ERA, a 3.96 FIP, five walks (1.59 BB/9), 30 Ks (9.53 K/9), and a .183/.227/.427 line against, though he did miss time while dealing with nerve irritation in his elbow in late April. He returned and since late May he hasn’t had issues.

“He’s been outstanding,” Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez said last weekend.

“He really has. I think my biggest with him is making sure that we keep him healthy, but he says that he feels good and he’s pitching really, really, well. He’s a guy that used to throw 95-96 mph and now he’s finally learning how to pitch and get outs and not necessarily strike guys out, but get outs, and that was important for him.”

He entered the All-Star Break with a streak of 11-straight scoreless innings going, over which he’s walked one and struck out 11 while holding opposing hitters to a .132/.175/.184 line.

“Just felt good all year,” Kelley said. “Been healthy. Last year I wasn’t healthy and this year from the beginning of Spring until now even with the heavy workload, there have been times I’m sore or tired, but I haven’t had as many sharp aches and pains and restrictions as far as my elbow this year, so it’s been my body feels good, I think that’s always been the thing for me.”