2019 STATS: 32 GS, 183.1 IP, 4.42 ERA, 4.51 FIP, 101 ERA+, 1.4 bWAR, 7.8 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 1.4 HR/9
2019 SALARY: 2 Million
2020 STATUS: EDITED Signed for 3 Million, Options for 2021-22, Becomes Free agent if either option declined. If both exercised, then will become free agent after 2022. Each Option decided independently, do not need to be exercised at the same time.
Merrill Kelly grew up in Arizona and was drafted out of Desert Mountain High school by the Orioles in the 37th round of the 2007 draft. Merrill opted to go to Yavapai College, Prescott, (where Curt Schilling also pitched), and was drafted again two years later, this time by the Indians in the 22nd round. Again electing not to sign, Kelly transferred to ASU, and was drafted once again in 2010 by the Rays in the 8th round.
Once entering the Ray’s system he had several decent but unspectacular years. By 2015 it was evident that he was not in their rotation plans. Determined to be a starter, Kelly made the unconventional choice to go to Korea and play in the KBO. He was very successful there, putting up a 3.86 ERA over four seasons. The league average ERA in that hitters league was 5.03 during his time there, so that actually works out to a 131 ERA+.
His chance to return to the United States and pitch in MLB was provided by the Arizona Diamondbacks who had been scouting him heavily. He was offered and quickly signed to a 2 year, 5.5 million dollar contract, with options on 2021-22 or a 500K buyout.
There was an interesting conference call with him when he was signed. You can review that HERE. He talked a bit about his process and improvements he made in Korea. It was reported that he was able to throw in the mid 90’s and topped out at 97. I posited he was more likely to sit in the low 90’s however.
We also covered him in the 2019 Projection Series. Here was his projection for review:
Kelly got off to a pretty good start, registering a quality start and a victory in his Major League Debut against the Padres. Notable also is that he drew a walk in that game to reach base for the first time in his career. But more on that later ;) Through his first three starts, 19 innings, Sean wrote a very interesting article parsing the small sample size and concluded that Kelly should at least be around average.
In fact, through his first 14 starts he was 7-6 with a 3.73 ERA, far better than expected, and through 20 starts he ERA was still 3.77, but his record had fallen to 7-9 due to lack of run and bullpen support.
However over his next 7 starts, he threw just 33 1⁄3 innings and gave up 33 runs. The homerun ball, somewhat of an issue all season, exploded as he gave up 10 long balls among the eye watering 49 hits surrendered during that stretch. Many, including this author, posited that the league had caught up to him and also the rigors of the 162 game MLB season was catching up with him.
And then he suddenly turned it around, reeling off a 4 game stretch of 27 1/3 IP with just 3 runs allowed. He finished off the season by giving up 5 runs in 6 innings to the Cardinals, but got the victory in a 9-7 game.
It all added up to a league average ERA+, and a near .500 record. League average innings eaters are valuable, and for 2 Million, Kelly’s overall performance was a bargain.
Something notable for me was his late season surge in velocity, which coincided with the better results. For the season he averaged 92 MPH on his fastball up through August, and had topped out around 94-95. But then in September his Average velocity jumped 1 full MPH on his FB to 93, and in fact all his pitches across the board. Brooks Baseball Link Here. There wasn’t any increase in the MAX velocity though, he just sustained a higher average
While velocity isn’t everything, faster is better provided there is no detriment to command or movement. The question for me is was it due to a mechanics tweak that allowed him to squeeze out more velo, or was it simply Max effort ? The fact that Avg velo went up without a concurrent increase in Max velo leads me to wonder about the sustainability of his late season velocity increase and surge in swing and miss.
Another important aspect of Kelly’s season I wanted to highlight was the number of really great games he threw. When he was on, commanding the strike zone at peak ability, he was extremely difficult to hit. In his best 11 games he averaged over 71 Game Score and several in the very high 70’s. His middle 10 best games averaged 50 Game Score. And in his worst 11 games he averaged a very poor 31 game score and included a couple games in the teens. So basically 1⁄3 of the time he was great, 1⁄3 of the time he was average, and 1⁄3 of the time he was awful, and it all added up to.......average.
Note that even in his best 11 starts he still gave up 6 homers, but they were mostly solo shots as he only gave up 8 runs in those 77 innings.
A final point on his 2019 season. Remember the walk he drew in his first game ? That would be the last time he reached base until July 23rd. He suffered an 0-33 start at the plate in his MLB career before getting his first base hit that day. In fact, that hit would be the only one he would garner all year, and he drew just one more walk on the season. He ended up 1 for 52, with 2 walks and 25 K’s and a .019/.056/.019 triple slash. It almost literally doesn’t get worse than that. He also made 4 errors defensively, and had a lowly .893 Fielding %. We were told by Jared Porter in that conference call linked in the intro that Kelly was athletic and a competitor, but it didn’t translate to his batting and defense. These are two areas where he sorely needs to work on and improve. It’s understandable, he was still a MLB rookie and had his hands full . And we got spoiled watching Zack Greinke excel to the tune of Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards. Still.....while Kelly had 1.4 Pitching WAR, his overall WAR dropped to 0.8 due to his failures at the plate, which were terrible even for a pitcher.
I believe that Kelly established his durability, and also his talent level quite admirably in 2019, and that will put him in position to be a member of the starting rotation to open 2020. A spot is his to lose. His stuff is just ok, average, like almost everything else about his 2019 results. Just don’t under estimate the value of average. He gives his team a chance to win more than half the time, and with a little luck, and a little improvement on his own end to the little things, he can eek out a winning season in 2020.
Steamer Projects him to a 4.80 ERA, 4.64 FIP , which would be a little worse than 2019. Lets hope he beats the projections once again, shall we ?