- Rating: 8.95
- 2023 stats: (Regular Season) 30 G, 12-8, 3.29 ERA/132 ERA+, 1.19 WHIP (Postseason) 4 G, 24 IP, 3-1, 2.25 ERA, 0.83 WHIP
- Date of birth: October 4th, 1998
- 2023 earnings: $8 million
- 2024 status: Under contract through the end of 2024 at $8.5 million
Last year, James started off his review of Merrill Kelly by saying 2022 was “far and away the best season of Merrill Kelly’s career.” That was the truth, which makes it even more impressive that by essentially every metric, Kelly improved this season over last.
It didn’t look like it was going to be that way at the start, however. He had an unusual spring training, as he spent most of the month with Team USA at the World Baseball Classic. He pitched twice in the tournament, with mixed results. His first start was against Team Columbia. It was predictably short, given that it was his first start of “Spring Training,” but he went 3.1 innings and held his opponent to two runs. He also got the ball in the final game of the WBC, but Japan got to him early on their way to a clinching victory over Team USA. He only managed to go 1.1 innings and gave up another two runs before being pulled.
While one would have to imagine getting to pitch on that level of stage would be beneficial for what was to come six months later, it put him at a disadvantage to start the season. He only was able to fit in one regular spring training start, which kept him on a pitch limit to start the season against the Dodgers. He only was able to last 3.2 innings in that first game. He held them scoreless, but gave up four walks in the process, pushing the pitch count even higher than it should have been.
Those walks would continue to be a storyline for the rest of the month of April. In his first three starts, he gave up four walks in each to the Dodgers twice and the Brewers once, and in those starts, the Diamondbacks ended up losing twice. He didn’t give up any walks against the Cardinals in start #4, but came back with a vengeance in start #5 against the Padres with five free passes awarded. The good news was that in his first six starts, the team still managed to go 3-3 despite his struggles, and he quickly built his innings back up into the guaranteed six that we have come to expect form Merrill the Mainstay over the years.
It’s hard to say if the World Baseball Classic and his unconventional ramp up contributed to his loss of control, but from the outside looking in, it sure seemed that way. What I can say, however, is that he only gave up 4+ walks three more times the entire rest of the season, which to me, at least, does suggest it was part of his continued stretching out and getting ready for the season.
The calendar switched to May, and he was the Merrill Kelly we all know. He held his opponents to two runs or less in four of his five starts that month. His biggest highlights were multiple ten strikeout games, coming in his first and last starts of the month. Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks were cruising along, just a mere half game out of first behind the Dodgers.
June brought more of the same. Kelly continued to pitch at a high level, though not quite as high as May. A 2.59 ERA in May turned into a still entirely respectable 3.08 through his first four starts in June. His fifth start... not so great. Seemingly out of nowhere he gave up seven runs, five earned in, in five innings against the Giants. Obviously never a good sign on its own, but it was followed up with worse news on June 27th when the team announced that Kelly would be going on the IL with blood clot in his lower right leg. This was his second incident with a blood clot, following his issue that lead to thoracic outlet surgery 2020
He was on the IL for 30 days, and got to watch the Diamondbacks freefall from the bench. When he was placed on the injured list, the Diamondbacks owned a .600 winning percentage and a 2.5 game lead in the division. When he came back, they were four games back of the Dodgers and down to a .539 winning percentage.
All that to say that the Diamondbacks needed a shot in the arm, and they got it. In his first seven starts back, he pitched better than he had at any point in the season, stringing together a 2.40 ERA over those starts. He pitched at least five innings in all seven, and only failed to reach the sixth in just a single start. Unfortunately, it didn’t help, as Moreno was still on the IL (more on that to come), and the rest of the team was doing their best impression of a loaf of bread.
The rest of the way, he was more than serviceable, though he did have two stinkers of seven runs given up each against the Dodgers and New York Mets. In his other starts, he continued to do everything to keep his team in the games, and it was needed as the Diamondbacks continued to fight and claw their way to their unlikely Wild Card berth. In that final series against the Astros, he gave the team every chance to clinch on their own terms, throwing seven innings of one run baseball.
He wasn’t the same level of workhorse in the regular season as he had been in past seasons, 2022 especially. He fell significantly short of his career best 200.1 IP that he spun last season, ending up at “only” 177.2 IP, but still managed 30 starts, despite missing an entire month on the injured list. He was still the same stabilizing force that we have come to expect, though, and in a lot of ways, had a stronger season than Gallen did, even if he didn’t get any recognition for that in the Cy Young voting. While Gallen had his ups and downs, essentially every time Kelly took the mound, you knew exactly what you were going to get from him.
And that consistency paid off in spades once the Diamondbacks started in the playoffs. Kelly didn’t get a chance to pitch in the Wild Card round; Gallen and Pfaadt just took care of business too quickly. He wasted no time making his presence felt in the NLDS, though, just demolishing the Dodgers for 6 1⁄3 innings of shut out baseball. It was a key part of one of the most cathartic games in Arizona Diamondback history, and the victory was oh-so-sweet.
He got roughed up in his first NLCS start against the Phillies, Kyle Scwarber took him deep twice, and Trea Turner added a third en route to a 10-0 Phillies win. In game 6, however, Kelly took the narrative back. It was a pivotal elimination game and Kelly rose to the challenge. He struck out eight, only gave up one run. Famously, though, Lovullo lifted him after just 5 innings, much to the, ah, chagrin of his starter and the confusion of pretty much the rest of the baseball world. It worked, though. The Diamondbacks forced game seven, and Lovullo was allowed to come back to Phoenix.
Thanks to both that game and Brandon Pfaadt’s incredible performance in Game 7, the Diamondbacks’ season rolled on to just their second World Series appearance in team history. Arguably, Merrill Kelly provided the brightest spot in that ultimately disappointing series. Arizona was already down 0-1 by the time Kelly took the mound, but he had saved his best for last. His final start of the season was a seven inning, one run, nine strike out game, leading the Diamondbacks to their only with in the World Series this year.
Did his struggles in the WBC help him handle the pressure of the World Series? Was it ultimately worth the early season setbacks he experienced? I guess we’ll never know for sure, but again, it sure looks like it.
So what comes next for Kelly? He’ll enter the 2024 season written in permenant ink as the Diamodnbacks’ 1B starter. It seems disrespectful to call him the #2 at this point. Beyond that? Well, he just turned 35 during the Diamondbacks’ postseason run. He is firmly in the danger zone for age to catch up to him. Will it though? Makakilo see’s reason for optimism in his article that’s set to publish shortly. The Diamondbacks are for sure counting on it though, and their success next season, at least in part, will hinge on it.