When Arizona Native Merrill Kelly looked at his career path and prospects following a pretty good year in AAA back in 2014, he didn’t feel like he was in the Tampa Bay Ray’s plans as a starter. Spending much of his time in Tampa as a swing man in and out of the rotation, that wasn’t really where his heart was.
“For my profession and for my job I want to start, I’ve always loved starting, and the SK Wyvens over there gave me a chance to do that”.
Sr. VP, and Asst. GM Jared Porter also made the team’s intentions clear. Regarding his role, Porter said
“Merrill is going to be on our major league team next year, we feel like he can come into Spring Training and hopefully leave camp as a member of our rotation”
Make no mistake, Kelly is here in Arizona to be a starter. It is reasonable to assume that he will need to have a good spring training and prove he belongs in the rotation. I don’t think anything is going to be handed to him on as silver platter. But the team and player’s intentions here seem clear and in sync. He signed to be a starter in Arizona.
So what does that mean for the team and for Kelly. Well, we can’t project him using stats quite frankly. The pitcher he was 5 years ago in the Ray’s organization is not the pitcher he is today. And we really don’t have a good basis to project stats from the KBO into the major leagues, although I’m sure some will try.
What we do know is that pitching in the KBO is a tough task, and for Kelly perhaps even more so. However he was clearly up to the task based on the success he had over there.
“Its helped me become a better pitcher, because over there sometimes you kinda have to figure out what you’re doing wrong, or the learning curve on your own because of the language barrier or because off their mentality. Going over there has forced me to be my own pitching coach and I think thats why I was able to progress into who I am today”
So who is he today ? Well when he was in the Tampa organization he was mostly a 2 seam fastball guy, throwing about 88-90. Since moving to Korea and working on his game there, he has added velocity, and has been known to top out at 97, although he probably averages in the lower 90’s on his fastball. Per Porter, he has a 5 pitch starter’s repertoire, with the FB, Curve ball, and Change up as the primary pitches, but he also throws a slider and cutter.
He spoke very articulately and is clearly an intelligent and adaptable player. I am looking forward to seeing how well he works with the Arizona coaching staff, especially Dan Haren. It seems like a cerebral pitcher capable of being his own pitching coach , and with such a wide range of weapons to deploy, would be the perfect guy for Haren to help max out his talent.
Porter also spoke to Kelly’s athleticism and being a strong competitor. I got that sense as well hearing him describe what pitching in the KBO is like:
“It’s an interesting ballgame, it’s a completely different animal from what we see in the states. The balls are a little smaller, the parks for the most part are a little smaller. .....The fans over there are crazy, they’re baeball crazy. They cheer from pitch one to pitch 250 of the game. It doesn’t matter if their home team is up by 10 or losing by 10, they’re in it from the start until the last out in the 9th. It can be intimidating when you first get over there but the longer I was over there I learned to love it and the atmosphere was actually really cool.”
So it doesn’t appear that Kelly will be intimidated by playing with a 3rd deck on the stadium.
Whether or not he can get outs in the major leagues remains to be seen. But I came away from the conference call feeling he is a confident, accomplished and well prepared pitcher. For their part, the Diamondbacks appear to have done their homework here. Having followed Kelly throughout his collegiate and professional career, Porter mentioned that he traveled to Korea numerous times to see him play.
Kelly made it clear that once the Diamondbacks came forward quickly as the most aggressive team looking to sign him, and made him a solid offer, he worked quickly with his agent and the team to finalize. Coming home to play in Arizona is a dream come true for him and his family, and he was walking on cloud 9 today while touring the ballpark.
We will have the opportunity to root for a true home town boy, and with a little luck and more of his trademark hard work he will have success and endear himself to the fan base.
Special Note: Hat tip to the terrific trio of beat writers who cover the Diamondbacks full time, Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic, Steve Gilbert of mlb.com and Zach Buchanan of the Athletic. While on the conference call my phone remained on mute, and I deferred to the pro’s to ask the questions and get Kelly and Porter to respond and open up. All three of these guys do a really good job and we are lucky to have them.