We don’t have a ‘Pittie for the Comeback Player of the Year, but if we did, then Merrill Kelly would likely have won that as well. Going into the off-season, his future was uncertain to put it mildly. He underwent thoracic outlet surgery in September 2020, to correct an issue that was causing problems with the nerves in his shoulder. It was not a common procedure and the track record for recovery from it was spotty, to the point that there were questions over whether or not the team would pick up Kelly’s 2021 option. They did, and Kelly repaid them by being the most reliable member of the rotation, leading the team in starts, innings and pitcher production (as measured by bWAR).
In what was not really much of a surprise, he has now added the 2021 ‘Pitties for Pitcher of the Year, getting exactly half of the ballots cast. It wasn’t particularly close, with the rest of the votes being spread out across the other candidates. Noe Ramirez was runner-up, but at 18% of the vote, was a long way back. With Michael still to cover Kelly in our review season (that’ll be up the weekend after next), I don’t want to steal the thunder, but do want to say a few words about Kelly’s recovery, and subsequent campaign.
The surgery followed Kelly suffering a blood clot in his shoulder, and has helped derail some careers. Matt Harvey is perhaps the most notable, having had the procedure in late 2016, since when his ERA is 6.15, compared to 2.94 prior to the operation. Per Zach Buchanan, “The success rate for thoracic outlet surgery is far lower than that for Tommy John surgery.” So while Kelly was able to begin throwing again about the end of November, fans were still holding their breath for his appearances in spring. This was one of those cases where the numbers resulting didn’t matter, so much as Kelly being able to perform without difficulty. But Kelly’s early form certainly did little to quash concerns.
His first four outings were all on the road, and did not go well. Kelly had a 7.71 ERA over 21 innings, allowing 28 hits and with a mediocre K:BB of 13:5. But a return home proved just what Merrill needed. Of his next six outings four were quality starts, and the other pair fell one out short of following suit. The reason? Of all things, his pants. On April 28, he said “I went to the back and grabbed my pants from two years ago. They were a little baggier, a little bigger. I felt kind of more like myself. I felt a little more comfortable, not as restricted. That was a big aspect of it... I like to feel like I got sweatpants on out there.” His ERA after adopting the roomier attire was 3.94.
While not his best start, perhaps his most memorable was the one on June 21, where Kelly beat the Brewers. That’s because it ended the team’s franchise record 17-game losing streak - it also ended an eight-game streak of losses when Merrill started. But it wasn’t all plain sailing for Kelly. He missed five weeks in August and September after testing positive for COVID-19, though his case was light, the symptoms limited to fatigue and a little achiness. But the effects seemed to linger, as he allowed 10 earned runs over 10.2 innings in his first two starts back. However, he ended the season with five shutout innings against the Giants, though was still stuck with a no-decision.
That was the way for Kelly in 2021, and he certainly deserved a better record than 7-11. He actually had a lower ERA over his nine no-decisions (2.98) than in his seven victories (3.33). And one area of his game definitely showed an improvement: Kelly’s hitting. After going 1-for-52 in his rookie campaign of 2019 (pitchers didn’t hit in 2022), he improved to 3-for-47 in 2021, including the first extra-base hit of his career. His OPS nearly tripled, going from .075 to .222, and his career figure of .146 is no longer the worst among active pitchers [with a min of 100 PA, that honor goes to a former D-back, Yusmeiro Petit at .124]
Kelly enters the final season of his contract with Arizona, apparently in solid possession of a rotation spot for next season, alongside Madison Bumgarner and Zac Gallen. He’s quietly moving up the franchise lists. He’s already in the top twenty for both starts and bWAR. Another good season, and Kelly will (health permitting) be knocking on the door of the top ten in Diamondbacks history. He needs 30 starts to surpass Doug Davis for 11th spot, and 3.2 bWAR to get past Brian Anders for the same position by that metric. But he is already among the best free-agent signings of the Mike Hazen era, and in the dismal campaign that was 2021, represented a genuine point of light.