In his Major League debut on April 1st against the San Diego Padres, Merrill Kelly went six innings, yielded five hits, three runs, walked two, and had three strikeouts. He also got his first MLB win with a 10-3 victory. Then, in his first start at Chase Field in front of his hometown fans on April 7th, a lack of offense by the Arizona Diamondbacks allowed the Boston Red Sox to hold on to 1-0 win against Kelly, who was incredibly efficient and effective with his strikes. He threw 94 pitches, 70 for strikes, and was ahead in the pitch count against every batter he faced in the game. He went eight innings, allowing only the one earned run (a home run to Mitch Moreland) and four hits with nine strikeouts and he did not issue a walk.
In his third start, he did get the decision as he gave up four runs in three innings but settled down to go five innings. Against the Chicago Cubs on Friday, he struggled with his walks and pitch count. Although he took the loss, he has already surprised the Diamondbacks pitching staff and the Diamondbacks fans.
Long Road to Major League Baseball
Kelly’s journey to the Major Leagues may not be one that fans are used to, He spent four years playing overseas. For some major league players, a season or two overseas is a chance to rediscover themselves after struggling to find professional baseball success in the USA. For Kelly, his four seasons overseas offered him the opportunity to improve his pitching skills with the hope of a return to the big leagues.
Decides to Stay Home in Arizona for College Baseball
Being a local player provides the Diamondbacks fans another reason to root for the desert native. Kelly attended Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale. The Baltimore Orioles selected Kelly in the 37th round of the 2007 MLB draft, but he did not sign a contract. Instead, he attended Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona. After playing college baseball for the Roughriders for two years, the Cleveland Indians took him in the 22nd round of the 2009 MLB draft. Again, he did not sign, opting instead to transfer to Arizona State University, where he played for the Sun Devils in 2010.
After finishing his college baseball career at Arizona State, Kelly was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the eighth round of the 2010 MLB Draft. He was able to move up a minor league level each season. He split his first professional season between the Hudson Valley Renegades and the Bowling Green Hot Rods where he was 8-7 with a 3.28 ERA. Moving on to the Charlotte Stone Crabs for 2011, he had an 8–3 record and a 3.57 ERA. For the 2012 season, he was with the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits, where he was used as a starter and a long reliever. In 2013, he was back to being a full-time starter. He played in 28 games for the Biscuits and the Triple-A Durham Bulls, going 13-8 with 111 strikeouts and a 3.64 ERA in 28 games. He was invited to Spring Training with the Rays for 2014 but did not make the Opening Day roster and was sent to Triple-A Durham.
Decides to Go Play Baseball in Korea
What seemed to hold Kelly back from making it to the big leagues was his fastball. Reaching only 90 mph, it was not considered strong enough. Minor league coaches for the Rays wanted him to be a full-time long relief pitcher. However, he wanted to be a starter, so he took a risky chance and went to play in Korea. The KBO is a hitter-friendly league, so going there as a guy who barely throws 90 mph is/was an enormous risk.
It took some time for him to adjust to not only a new league, but to new surroundings, too. In his first year with SK Wyverns in 2015, he went 11-10 with a 4.13 ERA as he slowly got used to the KBO. Over the next three years, he posted an ERA around 3.60. He saw improvements season over season and saw his fastball increase to around 95 mph. MLB coaches have said that players who go to Korea or even Japan sometimes have to be their own coach due to a communication “gap.” That’s what Kelly did. He watched himself on film over and over and kept changing his mechanics, improving his game as he went along.
In his three seasons in the KBO, he was 36-25 with a 3.80 ERA. What makes his story even better is the KBO league is known as a hitter’s league, where batters pound pitchers on a regular basis. However, Kelly had enough success against these hitters to catch the eye of major league organizations. He worked with a fastball-changeup-curveball selection and added a cutter that is now his best pitch.
Local Player Comes Home
Several MLB teams were interested in him, but once he found out the Diamondbacks were one of the teams, he chose to sign with them. He is now the fifth player in franchise history to play high school, college, and the big leagues all in Arizona.
Although he has only pitched in four games, it looks like this team might have a hidden gem in Merrill Kelly. His story proves that good things happen to good people who work hard and believe in making their baseball dream come true. He has proven to himself, his family, the coaches, and the fans that he belongs in the big leagues!
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