If you looked around the major leagues, you’d find tons of great stories about guys who made the bigs after being late-round picks or spent 10 years in the minors before getting a chance at the MLB level.
Then there are guys like Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly, who just made his big-league debut at 30 years old, nine years after he was drafted. Kelly has been a player who has defied all the odds. As a former Arizona State Sun Devil and Arizona native, it’s only fitting enough that the Diamondbacks were the team to give the righty a chance at his major-league dreams. He signed a two-year deal with them back in December with a club option for 2021 and 2022 after spending the past four seasons in Korea.
Kelly has only made one start so far this year, going six innings against the San Diego Padres and giving up three earned runs while recording his first career major-league win. In spring training he wasn’t very dominant, but Kelly has shown the ability to get outs, and Arizona believed in Kelly enough to put him in their starting rotation.
His Remarkable Story
An eighth round pick by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010 from a prestigious Arizona State program, Kelly made consistent progress through the minors, reaching as high as Triple-A after just four years. He posted impressive numbers in the ranks with a 3.40 ERA across five minor-league seasons. As he was inching closer to the majors, that is when SK Wyverns of the Korean Baseball league came calling in 2014.
With a fastball that sat at 88-90 mph at the time, he was never a top prospect, and it didn’t seem like his major-league dreams were going to come true. He was also being used as more of a reliever, But he wanted to be a starter, so he took a huge chance and went to play in Korea. The KBO is a hitter-friendly league, so going there as a guy who barely cracks 90 mph is a big risk. For example, Eric Thames of the Milwaukee Brewers also resurrected his career in Korea, hitting 124 homers across three seasons. But again, he was a hitter.
It took some time for Kelly to adjust to a new league and new surroundings. In his first year with SK Wyverns in 2015, he went 11-10 with a 4.13 ERA. Kelly slowly got used to the KBO, and over the next three years, the 30-year old posted an ERA around 3.60. He saw drastic improvements over the four seasons he spent in Korea while realizing that he had a lot more in the tank than he thought. Kelly saw his fastball spike a few miles per hour, now hitting the mid 90’s when he rears back.
Defying All the Odds
He faced a lot of adversity, especially after struggling in his first season in a foreign country where he had no family or friends around him. But Kelly bit the bullet and made the adjustments which have now earned him a spot on a big-league roster with the D-Backs.
In an interview with MLB.com’s Cut 4, he said: “Sometimes over there, you have to be your own pitching coach,” Kelly said. “Just whether or not something gets lost in translation or whether or not you are attacking the same problem, but they go about it a little bit differently. You have to navigate the waters on your own sometimes. That forced me to start to look for things I didn’t before because you have to fix it.”
For a lot of players who see a future overseas, Japan is usually the place where they end up. It’s a pitcher-friendly league rather than hitter-friendly, and many guys have found themselves there and then returned to the big leagues. But what makes Kelly’s story even better is the fact that he went to a league where hitters absolutely tee off on pitchers, yet he had enough success to catch the eye of major-league organizations.
Arizona will hope that Merrill Kelly can follow in the same path as St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Miles Mikolas, who had a stellar campaign last year after spending the previous three seasons with the Yomiuri Giants in the Nippon Professional baseball league in Japan.
Whether he succeeds at the big-league level or not, it’s definitely a remarkable journey that Kelly has taken to the bigs.