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Merrill Kelly - The 30-Year-Old Rookie Sleeper

It’s almost becoming a trend for players to travel overseas to play baseball after struggling to make it in the MLB, only to end up back in the Majors better than before. In 2017 it was Eric Thames and last year it was Miles Mikolas. You can now add Merrill Kelly to the list. The Arizona Diamondbacks signed Kelly to a two-year $5.5M contract in hopes of him bringing his success back from Korea into their rotation.

Kelly spent the last four seasons in the KBO developing into one of the league's top pitchers. An offensively-dominated league, the right-hander still found plenty of success and has evolved into a much different pitcher than the last time he was on an American diamond.

A former Tampa Bay Rays prospect, Kelly has yet to step foot on a field in the big leagues. The last time we saw him on this side of the Pacific was in Triple-A in 2014 for the Durham Bulls. From 2015-2018 Kelly seen improvement every year in Korea finishing up with a 3.86 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, and a 7.9 K/9. Not jaw-dropping figures, but keep in mind the KBO is like playing in Yankee Stadium with the altitude of Coors Field. After landing a deal with his hometown Diamondbacks, what should we expect from the 30-year old?

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KBO Career

Heres a quick rundown on Kelly’s KBO stats with the SK Wyverns.

IP / W-L / ERA / WHIP / K/9

2015: 181 / 11-10 / 4.13 / 1.34 / 6.91
2016: 200.1 / 9-8 / 3.68 / 1.32 / 6.83
2017: 190 / 16-7 / 3.60 / 1.31 / 8.95
2018: 158.1 / 12-7 / 4.09 / 1.26 / 9.15

Despite a down 2018 regarding ERA, Kelly improved on his WHIP every season and saw a dramatic rise in strikeouts over his last two years. In the Rays system, Kelly’s fastball was only clocked in the high-80s, probably a reason why he never got a big league call-up. Now, Kelly features a fastball in the 92-93 MPH range, and it has reached up to 97 MPH on the gun. He has a five-pitch arsenal that is good at keeping hitters off-balance. Kelly features the fastball, sharp cutter that jams lefties, knee-buckling curve, slider, and a deceptive changeup.

He will have to remain crafty with his pitches to get big league batters out, and with this kind of repertoire, it is indeed achievable. Kelly also displayed excellent control, another skill that should carry over to the majors. A career 2.54 BB/9 in the KBO, he saw his best yearly rate in 2017 with a 2.13 BB/9.

In 2018, Kelly helped the SK Wyverns win their first KBO championship since 2010. He threw seven innings of two-run ball getting the win in game three, and then toed the rubber for the clincher in game six. He tossed 5.1 no-hit innings as the Wyverns went on to win the game in 13 innings. Crowds in Korea are known to be quite loud and have intimidating settings, so the fact that Kelly pitched so well on this stage will benefit him for the atmospheres that will come on a Major League field.


Drawing a Comparison

There haven’t been many pitchers that have shifted from the KBO to the MLB, so trying to draw a direct comparison to see how his numbers will translate is difficult. The most recent was Seung-hwan Oh coming over in 2016, but he spent his last season in the KBO in 2013 before playing two years in Japan. The most comparable would have to be Miles Mikolas of the St. Louis Cardinals who had excellent years in Japan before making an impact in 2018.

Mikolas is only two months older than Kelly, so their baseball timeline is nearly identical. They both started in Single-A and moved up the ranks to Triple-A before fleeing the American baseball scene in 2014. Mikolas did, however, squeeze in just over 90 IP in the MLB before he ventured off to his three seasons with the Yomiuri Giants. Unlike the KBO, the NPB is known less for its power hitters; it’s more of a game revolved around contact and small ball. Mikolas had impressive success in Japan finishing his NPB career with a 2.18 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and 8.0 K/9.

Mikolas had a very productive return to the majors where he tossed 200.2 IP and went 18-4, with a 2.68 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and a 6.55 K/9. A large part of his success was due to elite command and an above average ability to generate ground balls. A 1.30 BB/9 was the best mark in baseball, and his 1.73 GB/FB was good enough for fifth best. He did lack in strikeout numbers though, as his contact and swinging strike peripherals were all under the league average. Mikolas also has a five-pitch arsenal and is effective with all his pitches, so their style and pitching mentality appears to be in sync.

Kelly’s control may not be as elite as Mikolas’, but it will still be above average if he keeps it in the neighborhood of his career BB/9 in the KBO. Where he lacks in walk rate in respect to Mikolas, he makes up for with strikeout upside. Kelly’s had a steady rate of improvement ever since his minor league days, and with Major League hitters setting new strikeout records every year, this will bode well for him. He also had a mere 0.80 HR/9 in his KBO career, a remarkable number for the power-driven league. While there is no groundball data to use, this low HR total suggests that he can keep the ball in the infield and out of the air.


2019 Outlook

The D’backs made it clear they signed Kelly to use him as a starter. With Taijuan Walker recovering from Tommy-John surgery, and the trade rumors around Zack Greinke, it will take a disastrous spring training for this not to materialize. The humidor that was added at Chase Field last season changed the park from hitter-friendly to more of a neutral stadium. It dropped from third to 11th in Park Factors for runs and fourth to 19th in HR. Whether this drop in hitting production is in direct correlation with the humidor remains to be seen as this is only a one-year sample, but it may be no coincidence since it’s the lowest total since 2013.

Kelly has a current ADP of 535, so he’s virtually free at this price, and he doesn’t need to earn remarkably high numbers in his rookie season for you to get value out of him. It’s extremely low risk with a high reward. With his pitching repertoire, he’ll continue to keep hitters off-balance and generate soft contact and ground balls, a good recipe for success. Pair that with his current walk rate capability he should be able to limit any damage.

Except for strikeout numbers, expecting a result like Mikolas’ 2018 with the Cardinals would be aiming high for him. Wins will be hard to find with the team in rebuild mode, but projecting something like his personal bests in the KBO (3.60 ERA/1.26 WHIP/9.15 K/9) would be well in range for the right-hander. Get your shares of Kelly now before the preseason hype builds and his ADP soars.

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