Batting leadoff, Braves’ Jarred Kelenic has found comfort and confidence

Atlanta Braves' Jarred Kelenic hits a htree-run home run in the second inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies Sunday, July 7, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Braves' Jarred Kelenic hits a htree-run home run in the second inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies Sunday, July 7, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

PHOENIX – On June 15, Jarred Kelenic strolled into the Braves’ clubhouse at Truist Park and looked at the lineup. Something jumped out at him: He spotted his name in the leadoff spot.

He won’t forget how it felt.

“For me, that feeling that I got when I saw in the leadoff spot was a sense of excitement,” Kelenic said. “I couldn’t wait for the game to start. I’ve always just wanted that role.”

Kelenic did not have a conversation with manager Brian Snitker. He simply arrived on that Saturday and saw his name at the top of the Braves’ batting order.

On the night before that, Michael Harris II strained his hamstring – which has required time on the injured list. And this came a few weeks after Ronald Acuña Jr. tore his ACL.

Before Harris’ injury, Snitker had used him and Ozzie Albies in the leadoff spot, depending on the starting pitcher for a specific day. On this Saturday versus the Braves, the Rays were sending a right-hander to the mound, so Kelenic made more sense than Albies.

Kelenic has led off every game since.

This role has given Kelenic some of the comfort and confidence he sought when the Braves acquired him.

“I feel like that’s just kind of all I’ve really wanted, is to have just that sense of trust, that leash to go out and play every single night,” Kelenic said. “At the end of the day, I’m a baseball player. All I wanna do, just like all these guys in here, we just wanna go out and play every single day. To get that opportunity right now on such a good team and around such a great group of guys means a lot to me and is something that I really appreciate.”

‘That guy’s been a spark plug’

When asked about Kelenic recently, Chris Sale put it well.

“That guy’s been a spark plug,” he said. “There’s no other way to really say it.”

Then he added this:

“What he’s been able to do – as soon as he started playing every day and getting his reps, he took off. You put him in that leadoff spot, and I don’t know the numbers, I don’t look at any of it, but I can’t imagine there’s too many guys in the leadoff spot since he’s started that have done better than him.”

Entering Wednesday, Kelenic had hit six home runs since moving into the leadoff spot – the second most of any leadoff man in that span, behind the Dodgers’ Shohei Ohtani (nine). Kelenic’s 14 RBIs in this time were tied for fourth among those batting first.

When looking at leadoff hitters with at least 50 at-bats since Kelenic moved into the leadoff spot, Kelenic’s .298 batting average ranks 12th and his .869 OPS is 10th.

These days, Kelenic seems more comfortable, no?

“I think he does,” Snitker said. “I think he’s more confident in his at-bats. I think he’s going up there expecting to do good. And it’s good. It’s not gonna happen every night, obviously. But I think he’s kind of feeling good about where he’s at, and expects to do good – which is a really good thing.”

Before this season, Kelenic hit leadoff 21 times in 306 career games. He was Seattle’s leadoff man in 17 games in 2021. But over the next two years, he didn’t see much time there because center fielder Julio Rodriguez assumed that role.

The Braves needed Kelenic to bat leadoff. And for him, it felt good to be needed.

“No, I think that can do a lot for a guy, that they come up and realize that you have a lot of confidence in them and feel like that about them,” Snitker said. “Some guys respond to it and some don’t. And he’s certainly responded to it.”

The Braves originally planned to give Kelenic everyday at-bats. This changed when they signed Adam Duvall during spring training. Kelenic took the news well and maintained his focus.

But now, the Braves are counting on him more than ever.

“I mean, I think that I really just took the approach at the beginning of the season that I was just going to cherish every opportunity I was gonna get, and I was gonna be ready for every opportunity,” Kelenic said. “And then the opportunities started to get more and more and more, especially as (Acuna) went down, then Mike went down, and then I kind of knew that I was gonna be getting everyday opportunities and I needed to take advantage of this, because the team needed me and this is what I’ve always wanted, is I’ve just wanted to be able to go out and play every single day. When I got that opportunity, I was just gonna make sure I was gonna do everything I could to take advantage of it.”

‘You can do damage on defense’

When Kelenic was a young boy, his father played on a softball team. And for young Jarred, these were the first days he chased balls in the outfield.

“The older guys would be hitting softballs, and I’d be running around out there,” Kelenic said. “That’s like the first memory that comes to mind.”

All these years later, Kelenic is a great defensive outfielder. In that aspect, he’s made the Braves better than they were a season ago. He makes the routine plays, and has the athletic ability to complete highlight plays. In center field, he’s gotten great jumps on most of the hard liners that have flown in his vicinity.

Tom Goodwin, the Braves’ first-year first base coach who works with the outfielders, first met Kelenic at Braves Fest in late January. A minor-league instructor before this promotion, Goodwin didn’t know much about Kelenic prior to the event. He’d heard about Kelenic’s journey and the strange relationships he might’ve had in Seattle, but the two hadn’t yet spoken until they met at Truist Park.

“And you could see he was kind of standoff-ish then, because he didn’t know what to trust coming into a new organization,” Goodwin said. “And I was kind of fresh into this organization, at least on the big-league side. But we really hit it off right away. It was one of those things where it was like, ‘OK, this is the guy. Oh, this is my guy. This is my guy.’”

At Braves Fest, Kelenic and Goodwin were together for some of the activities. This helped them begin building a bond.

In spring training, Kelenic struggled at the plate. He might’ve been putting too much pressure on himself to make a positive impression for his new team and its fans. He knew he would begin anew in Philadelphia, where the team would open the season.

And in his first nine games of the regular season, Kelenic hit .500 with three RBIs over 22 at-bats. His start inspired confidence that he could be what the Braves needed.

Then came a rough stretch.

After those first nine games, Kelenic batted .175 over his next 26. He had two homers and four RBIs, but struck out 31 times in 80 at-bats.

Goodwin, who enjoyed a 14-year career in the majors, could relate to Kelenic. For young players, it can be difficult to not spiral when the results don’t come as expected. This is something Kelenic has tried to do – remain present, regardless of what has previously concurred. Kelenic’s current success is validation for him.

“I can remember some of the struggles I went through,” Goodwin said. “You’re wondering like, ‘Man, do I even belong in the big leagues?’ Because you’re great in the minor leagues, you’re doing your thing in the minor leagues, but it never would come to fruition once you got up to the big leagues. To have that success is, I think, what helps. And then (Kelenic) being the type of player that he is, he’s not gonna stop, he’s not gonna rest on the good times. He’s gonna continue to try to grow, and that’s what he’s done.”

Goodwin knew Kelenic would come out of his struggles if he allowed himself to do so. In the meantime, he continued telling Kelenic something.

“For me, it was always reminding him that he can do damage on the defensive end, too,” Goodwin said. “It doesn’t have to always be offense. You can do damage on defense. You can make a great play, you can save some runs. I always say, ‘You can drive in runs on defense, too.’ I always tell them, ‘You can drive in runs on defense, too.’”

You can say this about Kelenic: When he struggled offensively for a month, he didnt’ take his at-bats to the outfield.

It said a lot about him.

“It proves that he was a baseball player,” Goodwin said. “It proves that somewhere in his background, he’s played baseball probably a lot, and he’s learned to play the game. … He knows better than to take at-bats out to the defense because it only takes one play out there, too, to where you can really get this thing snowballing and things can really look bad for you.

“It just proved to me that he thinks about the total game. He’s not just thinking about scoring runs. He’s also thinking about that pitcher that’s out on the mound, helping him, the team as a whole, he’s thinking about helping the team out any way that he can – especially when you’re not doing it on the offensive end. There were a couple times when a guy would make a great play on him, and then that guy comes up to hit and he’s like, ‘Oh man, I’m not letting one fall.’ And then somebody else makes a great play on him, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, get him back for me.’ You can see the team aspect in him, and that just comes from his background.”

‘I’ve just been really present’

By now, you know the story: Last season, Kelenic kicked a water cooler in frustration and fractured his foot. During his time away from baseball, he reflected and learned. He vowed to be different when he returned.

“For me, baseball was taken away for that month and a half, and I wasn’t going to let that happen again,” Kelenic said. “But it also put into perspective for me that you don’t know how long you’re gonna have to play this game. So for me, it really allowed me to just really enjoy the moment and be where I’m at, and give it everything I have and know that every single night, regardless of the outcome that I don’t have control over, when I go to bed at night, I know I gave everything I had.”

Baseball is no longer Kelenic’s identity. He said he’s doing a great job of separating his job and his off-field life.

“And it’s allowed me, when I come here, to really enjoy the small things that baseball gives me,” Kelenic said. “It’s given me so much. It’s given me so many relationships I’ll have for a lifetime. I’m really enjoying my time with the guys here, and the staff here has been just unbelievable. I couldn’t be more thankful for everything that I’ve got right now.”

When Harris returns, Snitker will have a decision to make. And Acuña will likely be the Braves’ leadoff hitter upon his return next season.

But in the leadoff spot, Kelenic has found comfort and confidence.

“I feel like what I’ve done such a good job of this year is just being super present each and every day, and separating each and every day by (taking them) one at a time, and that’s allowed me to just really succeed in those opportunities,” Kelenic said. “I’ve had bad days and I’ve had tough stretches and stuff like that, but I haven’t let them affect the next day, really. That’s one thing I’m really proud of myself (for), is that I’ve just been really present and I’ve been doing everything I can to control what I can and play hard.”