‘Criminally underrated’: Diamondbacks’ Merrill Kelly has high goals after breakout October

Diamondbacks right-hander Zac Gallen considered the case for Merrill Kelly’s rise to prominence. A year ago this time, Kelly was a surprise to many to be Team USA’s starting pitcher in the championship game of the World Baseball Classic. By October, he had proven to be among the best starters in the postseason, a performance that included spinning a gem in the World Series.

Gallen nodded along with the premise that Kelly is no longer a well-kept secret, but he stopped short of fully agreeing.

“I still think,” Gallen said, “that he’s criminally underrated.”

That, Gallen believes, will change this season.

“I think the rest of the league is going to take notice this year,” he said. “People are starting to realize it, but I don’t think they fully grasp it, is my perception of it.”

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly (29) throws a pitch against the Texas Rangers during the first inning in game two of the 2023 World Series at Globe Life Field on Oct. 28, 2023, Arlington, Texas.
Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly (29) throws a pitch against the Texas Rangers during the first inning in game two of the 2023 World Series at Globe Life Field on Oct. 28, 2023, Arlington, Texas.

Over the past two seasons, Kelly has logged 378 innings with a 3.33 ERA, a mark that is 25 percent better than average. Only six pitchers in baseball have logged more innings while maintaining that level of run prevention.

Kelly also compiled 24 innings in the postseason with a 2.25 ERA, winning key games against the Phillies and Dodgers and leading the Diamondbacks to their only victory in the World Series by throwing seven innings of one-run ball against the Rangers in Game 2.

Just about the only thing that has slowed Kelly in recent years is health. He missed a month last season while dealing with a blood clot in his right leg and had multiple starts cut short due to cramping issues. He said he now takes Eliquis, a blood-thinner, that he hopes will prevent more clotting, and he is hopeful a hydration plan put together with help from experts at the Mayo Clinic will eliminate the clotting.

Had he not missed time last year, Kelly might have joined Gallen in the discussion for the National League Cy Young Award. He wants to be squarely in the mix this year.

“If I can stay healthy and do what I think I’m capable of, I definitely think I can be in those type of conversations,” Kelly said. “That’s the goal every year. I know it is for that guy.”

With that, Kelly motioned across the room to Gallen.

“Obviously, keeping up with that guy is a good push for me,” he said.

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Theories abound as to why Kelly has flown under the radar. He does not have overpowering stuff. He reached the majors via an unconventional path. He pitches for a club that, prior to October, did not get much national attention.

General Manager Mike Hazen said it is a subject he used to wonder about — he noted that Kelly never generated trade interest commensurate with his ability — but he said he has stopped trying to figure it out.

“I just don’t know because the performance has been there year in and year out,” Hazen said. “He’s consistent. He’s a strike thrower. He has multiple pitches. He really (knows how to pitch). He does things that I hear people talk about valuing — and he does all of it well.”

Two years ago, Kelly rediscovered the feel for his change-up. Last season, he began incorporating a slider. He throws it sparingly, but it gives him six distinct pitch types, a well-rounded repertoire that allows him to attack any weakness he might encounter in a hitter.

“It’s a real thinking man’s type of pitching,” Gallen said. “He sequences really well. I feel like people nowadays, they don’t love the art of pitching as much as they love the stuff. That’s where guys get looked over.”

Kelly’s action this spring has been limited thus far to the back fields, including on Monday, when he threw a live batting practice session at Salt River Fields. He is not scheduled to pitch in a Cactus League game until March 8. He said his right shoulder was “pretty tired” by the end of last season, and his deliberate spring schedule amounts to saving his bullets for when they count.

“I think it’s more based on the fact that I know that the volume has been high the past two years, and figured if I’m going to take some time to slow play some things, now is definitely that time,” Kelly said. “I just need to be ready when games actually matter.”

Kelly admitted his performance in October, pitching well on the game’s biggest stage, helped his confidence. But as to whether it raised his profile, he called it a better question for others to answer.

“I believe that if I am doing what I can do, I definitely would put myself up there with anybody,” Kelly said. “I think at this point in my career there’s nobody in the league I don’t go into the at-bat with ultimate confidence that I’m going to get you out.”

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Merrill Kelly sets goal after World Series breakout with Diamondbacks