Keone Kela made his Padres debut in the fifth inning on Saturday evening and promptly struck out the side. He’s ready for whatever role is asked of him.
Imagine making your debut with a new club after a positive COVID test, and forearm issues limited the workload in 2020 and striking out the side. For Keona Kela, that’s how his Padres spring training debut unfolded on Saturday evening in a 3-1 victory over the rival Los Angeles Dodgers.
“It felt really good,” Kela said after Saturday’s game. “I was excited to get out there. You know, throw on the new threads with the new squad and showcase what I can do and what I’m going to bring to the team.”
As a former 12th round pick of the Texas Rangers in 2012, Kela has been a reliever since day one, posting a 3.45 ERA in three-and-a-half seasons in Arlington. The Pirates acquired him in 2018, where he would go onto become one of the most dominant bullpen arms.
Of course, 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic put a roadblock in Kela’s workload, as the almost 28-year-old tested positive for the virus. He only pitched in two innings last season while also being shut down by forearm issues after his August 21 appearance against Milwaukee.
That day, Kela threw just four pitches before he knew something wasn’t quite right.
“It was really frustrating,” he explained. “It disrupted my tempo as a baseball player…Missing Spring Training 2.0 for five weeks consecutively testing positively with COVID was hard. I was in Pittsburgh. You know, just a foreign place and trying to figure it out.”
The Padres signed Kela to a one-year, $1.2M deal the same weekend they inked reliever Mark Melancon to a deal. Both pitchers figure to have a say in the closer role in an effort to replace Trevor Rosenthal, who signed with the Oakland Athletics this offseason.
Once the go-to closer, Kela pitched anywhere from the sixth inning and on in 2019, and he could have a floating role with the Padres. But if you ask the Los Angeles, California native, racking up saves is no longer the most important achievement.
“The ninth inning, I think, has slowly dwindled out of the game,” Kela told the media. “Sometimes games are won in the sixth, and they’ve always been that way. But the ‘S’ doesn’t really matter to me. I’m here to win. At the end of the day, that’s what matters. That’s how you stay in this game by winning ball games.”
When healthy, Kela is one of the most unhittable relievers. He’s primarily a two-pitch pitcher, showcasing his curveball and four-seam fastball 50.9 percent and 47.3 percent of the time in 2019, respectively. Since 2018, Kela’s curveball usage increased from approximately 36 percent to where it currently stands.
But generating that spin required for an effective curveball took its toll on Kela. However, like many before him, he spent the offseason at the Driveline Academy looking for ways to remain healthy.
“I started using this connection ball, which pretty much shortens the arm path and keeps everything more tight-coiled while moving down the mound – a lot of linear movements, explosive movements. The biggest mechanical change was shortening up my arm path, so when my landing foot hits, I’m just on time, and I’m in a position to use all my power,” Kela concluded.