By Todd Johnson
One thing that the Cubs have lacked in recent years in the system has been speed. Last summer, a then 18-year-old Fernando Kelli stole 58 bases in the Dominican Summer League. In addition, he hit .320 with an on-base percentage of .437. He’s not big by any means at 6’ and 180 pounds, but prior to his breakout, he’d only been seen a little bit in spring training of 2017. No one knew that much about him before. That has all changed.
I had a lot of questions about him and was extremely interested to get a good look at him. During spring training, he actually got into a couple of games with the big league club and held his own. Being that he now plays late at night for Eugene, I am getting a pretty good look at what he can and cannot do. There are a lot of things to like and there are a lot of things that he needs to improve on. Then again, he’s just 19 playing one level above most of his peers.
Things He’s Doing Well
The first thing you notice about Kelli is his speed. In his first ten games, he had the opponent’s attention within seconds. It affected how fielders fielded and threw. It affected a pitcher’s attention span. Kelli’s speed totally disrupts the flow of the defense. So far, in just 11 games, he has 8 SBs which puts him on pace to steal 50. He has been caught stealing twice and picked off once as he continues to adjust.
He’s a pretty decent defender. He also uses his speed in the field to go get some balls. He already has one outfield assist as he gunned down a runner heading back to first. Kelli is not just a one-trick pony. He’s an all-around baseball player.
I like his hitting profile, too. He can hit the ball with authority to right field and has 1 HR to date. He doesn’t necessarily spray the ball as only 12% of his batted balls go to center. Most of his contact goes to left (41%) and right (45%). He also gets the ball in the air as a hitter. He barrels up the ball regularly with 50% of his contact being line drives and fly balls. After last night’s game, he’s hitting on the young season with an OBP of .348.
Surprisingly, Kelli is not a big bunter. The defense comes in on him at the corners to guard against him bunting and he takes advantage of that by lining balls in those gaps in the infield.
I really like watching him play. There is no one quite like him in the Cubs’ minor league system and you never know what will happen on each play.
Things to Work On
It didn’t take teams long to catch on that Kelli has some major league wheels. He got thrown out at second twice in one game and is now learning how far he can lead off and how to pick his spots to steal a base.
In his first eight at bats, he struck out four times. Now that he’s got an a little bit more larger data set, his K rate is still high at 38% while his walk rate is at 7.7%. Those numbers are going to have to change. As a leadoff hitter, 38% is not sustainable, but it is getting lower.
Game experience – He can make a really good play in the outfield tracking down a fly ball and then there have been a couple of moments where he completely loses the ball or takes a poor route to get to a ball. The Eugene outfield is not the easiest place to play because the outfielders are staring directly into a setting sun. Still, he is going to have to improve.
Approach – Right now, he’s struggling with a breaking ball or offspeed pitch down and away. It’s also odd because he takes a fastball to right field with ease. He needs to learn to do the same with pitches that don’t start with a F.
Seeing a curve In the US is a lot different than say the DSL. In the DSL, most of the pitchers are 17 to 19-year old kids while in the Northwest League, a lot of the arms have some level of college experience. And the pitchers that came out of high school have much more game experience versus kids from the DSL.
It’s an interesting adjustment that sometimes takes 2 to 3 years to catch up. Kelli will play at Eugene this year, go to fall instructs, and then play winter ball where he will continue to improve over time as he gains experience. Who knows, he might catch on this season.
He could be a different hitter next spring in South Bend or even as early as mid-July as he improves his pitch recognition skills. It just depends on how fast he can adjust. For now, though, he’s very exciting. It is hard to imagine that he could be more exciting, but he most certainly can.