EDIT: Audio of call added to the post
As announced on the team’s twitter feed, Merrill Kelly will be a member of the starting rotation to open the season. He will be the 5th starter, and pitch the first game in Texas on July 28th.
While this does not come as a surprise, it was anything but certain that Kelly would be in the starting rotation when spring training originally opened in February. In fact most of the speculation was that he would be in the bullpen, as 6th or 7th starter depth. However with the delay to the season due to the Pandemic, and then Mike Leake opting out, suddenly Kelly’s opportunity presented itself once again to be a starter.
He seized that opportunity, coming back to summer camp ready to go, and has pitched very well, earning the spot. Perhaps the fact that there are already two left handers in the rotation in Madison Bumgarner and Robbie Ray, and not many left hand options for the bullpen played into the decision making as well. Alex Young, coming off a surprisingly good rookie campaign, will start the year in the bullpen most likely. Of course if Kelly falters, besides Young there are other options waiting in the wings to take their shot, including Jon Duplantier, Taylor Clarke, and perhaps even Corbin Martin if he’s ready. So Kellly will need to pitch well to hold the spot.
For his part, Kelly views himself as a starter, and it was clearly important to him that he get a chance to remain one. Said Kelly,
“As I’ve told you guys before, that’s (starting) what I love to do. I love having that 5th day as your day. I love the preparation that goes into being a starter. I love the idea that you’re given the ball and that game is yours and you try to go as deep as you possibly can”
It’s notable that he has that mindset. Merrill had 10 starts with 7 or more IP last year, behind only Zack Greinke, who had 11 for the D-backs, albeit in 2⁄3 of a season with the team. Luke Weaver had two such starts. No other starter had more than 1 start of 7 innings or more. Kelly also had 19 starts of 6 IP or more, so his ability to provide length is something that will be very important to the team in 2020.
Last year was a bit up and down for Merrill. He was pretty good up through the all star break, going 7-8 with a 4.03 ERA and 2.89 K/BB ratio. But he hit a very tough 6 start patch shortly after of the break where he gave up 46 hits, including 10 homers in just 29 innings. That lead to 31 runs allowed and a 9.20 ERA. But he finished the season strong, as over his last 6 starts he had a 2.68 ERA, and in 3 of those starts he went 7 innings, allowing zero runs. He ultimately finished 13-14, with a 4.42 ERA in 183 IP. While not outstanding, that is more than good enough for the 5th starter’s slot. He is already an established innings eater, but he hopes to do more this year.,
Kelly addressed the bad post all star game stretch. He said the biggest take away from that was
“being able to recognize when I start going down that slide. Not being too hard on myself when I have one or two bad games. It’s going to happen, and it’s how we react to that. The biggest thing I’m going to take is if I do get roughed up, try not to think to much of it , flush it, and just go out there and take the next game as it is and not trying to take the last game into the next one.......”
He acknowledged however the urgency of this shortened season too
“Obviously this season is going to be a little bit different, just cuz it’s only 60 games. It’s a sprint, so I think the pressure might be on everybody a little bit more than usual”
I noted to him that his curveball looked really sharp in the game the other night. Asked if his focus in summer camp was more on consistency, or adding more wrinkles to his repertoire, he mentioned that it’s really both. He said he is tinkering with the Curve a bit now, specifically two strike execution, and not throwing it IN the zone when he has two strikes on the batter.
“I’ve done a good job of throwing it for strikes, I need to do a better job of throwing it for balls when I need to”
He also mentioned the other main point he’s focusing on is his changeup.
Towards the end of the interview session, he touched on some interesting aspects of preparation for the road trip. He acknowledge that the guys are actually somewhat anxious over what conditions will be like on the road .
I think everybody is....um...a little anxious on what it’s actually going to look like when we get going, as far as traveling goes, visiting sides, different stadiums, being in different locker rooms, trying to navigate through these waters that we have in front of us.
One of the things that jumps out that we had a meeting about yesterday is that we’re going to be in different clubhouses. Some stadiums don’t have the size clubhouse for the social distancing, so I think we might be a little spread out as a squad.
Follow up Q&A revealed that they might even have to have separate areas set up where part of the team will change, such as auxiliary rooms or even hallways. The opposing team’s are responsible to set things up, and they just don’t know what that’s going to look like. Other factors that weigh on his and the other player’s minds include how they’ll react in celebratory or emotional situations.
“Obviously with the Social Distance we’re not supposed to high five, we’re not supposed to hug, it’s going to be weird in a big situation if somebody hits a big time homer and we go ahead or we win the game , what that’s going to look like compared to what it usually looks like.”
Merrill does his best to answer every question thoughtfully. I’m somewhat optimistic for him to have a good season, His strong finish last year was a good sign of course, as is his good summer camp. I think he is a smart cerebral guy who will benefit from the added experience. But he’ll need to get off to a good start.