Can Jarred Kelenic Sustain His Hot Start?

Jarred Kelenic of the Atlanta Braves has been off to a red-hot start in 2024. The question is, can he maintain this offensive output?

MIAMI, FLORIDA - APRIL 13: Jarred Kelenic #23 of the Atlanta Braves before their game against the Miami Marlins at loanDepot park on April 13, 2024 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Brennan Asplen/Getty Images)

When Jarred Kelenic went 2 for his first 30 in Atlanta Braves spring training, there was instant concern about his bat-to-ball ability, along with the fact that he tinkered with his stance and swing once again.

Fast forward to him putting up a 202 WRC+ through the first two weeks of the season and those worries are in the rearview mirror – for now.

Kelenic has managed to hit .462 through his first ten games. While he does not yet hold a home run to his name, he has been a key piece of the Braves 8-4 start. 

Platooning with Adam Duvall in left field, Atlanta has aggressively kept Kelenic away from left-handed bats in the early going. He has seen exactly one at bat against a southpaw, and the plan has worked to perfection.

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The question now becomes what is a familiar debate topic: can he keep it up?

Kelenic’s story is well known by now. No. 6 overall pick out of high school in 2018 by the Mets, traded to the Mariners, debuted as a top five prospect in baseball, and then struggled mightily in both 2021 and 2022. He did not find sustained success in either of his first two big league seasons.

In 2023, Kelenic exploded out of the gate for Seattle. He hit .308 with seven home runs and a .982 OPS in the first month last year, highlighted by a 482-foot tank to the centerfield bleachers at Wrigley Field. It appeared that the long-awaited breakout was finally happening.

Instead, it proved to be a flash in the pan. Kelenic posted an 88 WRC+ the remainder of the year and then missed nearly two months from the middle of July until September after kicking a cooler in frustration that resulted in a broken foot.

Hot starts are not foreign to Kelenic. Proving he can continuously keep it up is.

The difference here in 2024 is that there are some signs that, while he of course won’t hit .460 all year, he will maintain success.

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The strongest early sign is that he is barreling the ball up at a higher clip than in any previous year. He ended his 2023 campaign with a Barrel% of 59, and currently sits at a 71% clip in 2024. And all of that is without a baseball leaving the yard. Kelenic has three doubles to his name, but no triples and no long balls, yet he is hitting the ball with increased authority.

He is also being treated as a strict platoon player in Atlanta, which has greatly benefited him in the early going. While the Mariners leaned heavier on Kelenic against righties than lefties, he saw left-handed pitching in 54 different games last year. The Braves have cut that out almost entirely. They have made it abundantly clear that, at least for now, Kelenic will not see southpaws, with the nods consistently going to Duvall. 

It may be how they feel Kelenic is best suited as a player, or they may prefer to ease him in that way over a prolonged period of time before even thinking about letting him see time against lefties.

Kelenic Lowering Strikeouts is a Must

The overarching X-factor for Kelenic to continue his success will be the strikeouts. It is the same thing that’s hampered him in the early part of his young career. And that is an area that still flashes red flags, even with his hot start in Atlanta. 

Kelenic is punching out over 31% of the time, a mark eerily similar to 2023 (31.7% K%). In general, it is very difficult for any player to maintain a high level of success when striking out that often, not just Kelenic. If he can find a way to cut the strikeouts down a notch, to get himself closer to the 25-26% range (which is much closer to the league average) that could drastically turn the tides in terms of how people view his potential for success as a player. 

Plenty of impact bats put up gaudy numbers while striking out around the 25% mark (such as Julio Rodriguez, Adolis Garcia and Gunnar Henderson to name a few). But very few players who strike out 30% of the time find their way to stardom. 

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It is still early in the season with plenty of time for Kelenic to turn the tides on that narrative, but so far he has repeated old habits with his punchouts.

Kelenic will also have to prove that he can hit breaking balls over a long period of time. He has never had trouble timing up fastballs (he slugged .547 with a 7 Run Value against four-seam fastballs in 2023, per Baseball Savant). Seeing spin is what has caused him fits, and pitchers knew that as he would get attacked with a plethora of them.

His early results against breaking balls and changeups are a positive, but the sample size is way too small to draw any definitive conclusions yet.

Kelenic has continued to draw a healthy share of walks much like he did last year (currently walking 10.3% of the time) and is a stellar defender in left field, both of which has helped him become more of a complete player. But the strikeouts will be the primary headline to keep an eye on.

The Braves are a juggernaut with or without Kelenic. A lineup featuring Ronald Acuna Jr., Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies, Michael Harris II and Marcell Ozuna might be the best in baseball. If Kelenic’s success proves to be for real and continuously plays at an All-Star level, this iteration of the Braves offense will be the best one we’ve seen.