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Commentary: What’s the key for Jarred Kelenic putting Tacoma in his rearview mirror for a return to Mariners? It’s in the process.

July 4, 2022 Updated Mon., July 4, 2022 at 9:25 p.m.

Jarred Kelenic looks on during batting practice at T-Mobile Park on May 7 in Seattle. Kelenic was demoted by the Seattle Mariners to Triple-A Tacoma on May 13.  (Tribune News Service)
Jarred Kelenic looks on during batting practice at T-Mobile Park on May 7 in Seattle. Kelenic was demoted by the Seattle Mariners to Triple-A Tacoma on May 13. (Tribune News Service)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

TACOMA, Wash. – There are some numbers that pop out when discussing Tacoma Rainiers outfielder Jarred Kelenic, once considered the best prospect in the Seattle Mariners’ organization.

There’s .173 – his career batting average in 123 major league games. There’s -2.0 – his career Wins Above Replacement mark during his time in The Show. There is also No. 6 – which is where he was selected in the first round of the 2018 MLB draft.

But during a seven-minute interview from Cheney Stadium on Thursday, a new number emerged in regards to the 22-year-old: 14 – the number of times he said the word “process.”

This was Kelenic’s mantra when answering questions about his trials and tribulations in the big leagues over the past couple of years. His general feelings on the ups-and-downs, most of which have been downs? “I’m just focusing on my process.”

His reaction to being sent down to Tacoma after hitting .140 in 30 games with the Mariners this season? “I knew I wanted to come down here and focus on my process.”

His response to struggling in two-strike situations, an area in which Mariners manager Scott Servais said he needs to improve? “Anyone can improve in two strikes. I think it’s a pretty vague goal. I’m just out here again working on my process.”

The repetition wasn’t necessarily dismissive or condescending – not like when NBA star Russell Westbrook, clearly miffed by his team’s performance, once answered every postgame question with “we just gotta execute.” But Kelenic’s demeanor did betray a level of frustration not conducive to revealing thoughts about his situation.

Hard to blame him, really.

Two years ago, Jarred was one of the most hyped youngsters the M’s had acquired in the past decade or so. He and Julio Rodriguez, who is mashing major league pitchers, were going be the front men for the franchise’s revitalization. Maybe that still happens. Again, Kelenic is just 22. But the gap between potential and performance for the Wisconsin native thus far stretches from foul pole to foul pole.

A Baseball Prospectus article broke down some of his shortcomings recently. The conclusion was that Kelenic has been a real-life Pedro Cerrano – a standout facing fastballs but substandard against anything breaking or off-speed. This point was illustrated in a graph showing Kelenic’s whiff-per-swing rate by pitch type in MLB. In 2021, he swung and missed on 15.53% of fastballs, 38.36% on breaking balls and 41.38% on change-ups. In 2022, at the time of the piece’s publication, it was 23.33%/46.81%/54.05%.

Perhaps the bigger concern is those disparities didn’t improve much when he was sent down, even if he entered Thursday’s game hitting .297 with an OPS of .905 with the Rainiers. Baseball Prospectus said Kelenic’s swing-and-miss percentages by pitch type in Class AAA this season was 19.63 for fastballs, 50.00 for breaking balls and 53.13 for off-speed.

I asked Kelenic about this. He didn’t seem too worried.

“I definitely think I have an approach down right now that’s allowing me to lay off on the off-speed pitches down (low). I don’t think I struggle with off-speed pitches in the zone. I think when I struggle with off-speed pitches it’s below the strike zone and that’s what I’m chasing,” Kelenic said. “But I don’t think I struggle with off-speed pitches. Someone that struggles with off-speed pitches, you put a curveball machine out there and they’re gonna swing and miss. I don’t swing and miss.”

This is the sort of confidence you’d expect from a player with a major league future. And it’s the sort of confidence Mariners senior director of player development Andy McKay thinks Kelenic has rediscovered in his time in Tacoma. In fact, McKay said that the totality of Kelenic’s professional baseball experience – whether it be a collection of clutch hits for the Mariners during last season’s wild-card run, or an extended demotion in 2022 – is properly preparing him for a solid, if not stellar career.

“From a mental standpoint, he’s probably in the best place he’s ever been,” McKay said. “We still think we have one of the top young players in baseball, and we’re quite confident of that.”

Speaking of mental standpoints, a minor league manager once told me that, unless you’re a phenom like Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez or Bryce Harper, the difference between a major leaguer and a minor leaguer is one’s ability to endure the inevitable dips that come with a 162-game season. And when you’re a high first-round draft pick hyped as the future of a franchise, dealing with those dips can be difficult to – what’s the word? – process.

“You can’t ever prepare for it,” Kelenic said of the expectations. “A lot of times it can speed up on you as I think sometimes it did for me.”

What do you mean by “speed up on you?”

“A lot of different things,” he said. “But I think anytime something speeds up on you, it’s when you make an emotional decision whether it’s getting frustrated with a call and you end up chasing.”

So that’s where the process comes back into play – Kelenic recognizing where he can improve mechanically and emotionally.

We’ll see if it works out. Jarred has a whole lot of talent. But to get back to the game’s highest level, he has a lot more to prove.

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