Why Jarred Kelenic could be breakout Mariners player in Year 2

Feb 14, 2022, 7:54 AM | Updated: Feb 16, 2022, 11:02 am
Mariners Jarred Kelenic...
Jarred Kelenic of the Mariners looks up as he runs to first base against the Angels on Sept. 26, 2021. (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)
(Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

While one of the most anticipated seasons in Mariners history is on hold due to the MLB lockout, we’re not letting that get in our way of breaking down why 2022 should be a big year in Seattle. Keep your eye on for a series of articles looking at important Mariners topics from our baseball experts and insiders. This week we’re looking at young players who could have a breakout year.

In this post, Mariners insider Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle shares her insight on young outfielder Jarred Kelenic. Find links to the other posts on breakout candidates at the bottom of the article.

Jarred Kelenic began what he hopes will be a storied MLB career in 2021, but it was not the start he was looking for.

Drayer: Why legacy could be the key to ending MLB lockout

In his first 23 big league games, the former top prospect Kelenic didn’t just struggle – he got crushed, slashing .096/.185/.193 for a .378 OPS with a 28.3% strikeout rate in 92 plate appearances. It was a stark – and from the fan reaction we saw in this case, perhaps much-needed – reminder that the divide between Major League Baseball and minor league baseball is immense, and that baseball is hard.

For Kelenic, who had never struggled at any level, it was a learning experience. Not fun, but necessary.

At the plate, he saw how quickly opposing pitchers could pick up on tendencies and unmercifully expose any weakness. On the team side, he learned that each game was much bigger than his individual performance.

The debut was no doubt a painful personal disappointment, no part of the vision he had been crafting for years. The good news? With his career in front of him and the Mariners in “go” mode in 2022, there’s an opportunity to quickly make everyone forget those first 23 games.

In his favor heading into this season: a strong finish in September and October where Kelenic slashed .248/.331/.524 (.854) with a 135 wRC+ that was second on the Mariners only to Mitch Haniger over that period. The encouraging turn started about two weeks after Kelenic returned July 16 from Triple-A Tacoma. From August on, he posted a .758 OPS with 11 home runs – putting up better at-bats, laying off the down and away pitch that ate him up in his first go-round, and lowering his strikeout rate from the 28.3% in his first 23 games to 24.6%.

Perhaps even more encouraging than the numbers was the situation in which those numbers were put up.

The Mariners were fighting for a playoff spot, and Kelenic took a step forward. Still fiery from time to time, we didn’t see the outbursts at the plate after a bad outcome nearly as often.

One at-bat in September had me particularly encouraged. I witnessed it up close, in the camera well where I wait to enter the field for walkoff radio interviews after Mariners wins. The game was tied in the ninth and Kelenic was at the plate with the opportunity to do something. We had seen this several times earlier; in fact, when he was struggling it seemed he was always the one at the plate late with the game on the line.

What jumped out to me about this at-bat was how calm he was. I hadn’t seen that from him before. With some players in these situations, you can see the wheels turning. On the other end of the spectrum: Edgar Martinez, who looked almost serene as he awaited the pitch. On this day, Kelenic skewed toward Edgar.

He worked a 3-2 count, fouled off a couple of pitches, seemed in control of the at-bat. He didn’t win this battle – he struck out – but even then it was different. He nodded his head as he turned back to the dugout. It was a battle he lost, but it wasn’t everything as it seemed earlier in the year. You can’t play the game that way, and I think Kelenic now understands that.

You can point to K rates, swings, barrel rates, and any number of stats to see that Kelenic was trending in a good direction on paper late last season, but it’s the things you can’t quantify that have me intrigued about what he could do in 2022.

I like the way he talks about his game. It’s clear he has a good understanding of what he does and what opponents try to do to him. I like how he talked through his process when he struggled. I think there is little question that 2021 humbled him some, but he is still Jarred Kelenic. Eyes opened, he is just as driven to be not only a good player but a superstar, and we know he puts in the work.

I find it interesting that he has been generally quiet as he has gone about his work this winter. There no doubt was a lot to process after his first season in the bigs, and with that experience he should be much better equipped for what could be his sophomore breakout campaign.

More Mariners breakout candidates

Bob Stelton: Logan Gilbert showed he’s built for big moments
Brandon Gustafson: Andrés Muñoz could be next lights-out reliever
Brent Stecker: Cal Raleigh’s high ceiling at catcher

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