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Right-hander Merrill Kelly is doing more than giving the Arizona Diamondbacks a reliable performance every fifth day this season. He also is providing major league general managers a window into the viability of another part of the South Korean market.
Kelly has landed firmly in the Diamondbacks’ starting rotation after spending the last four seasons with SK Wyverns of the Korean Baseball Organization, where he won 48 games and helped lead the team to the league championship in 2018.
Korean influence is not new to the majors, of course. Dodgers left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, healthy again, leads the NL in ERA while having a career year. Texas’ Shin-Soo Choo has been a fixture in major league outfields for a decade, and Chan Ho Park won 124 games in a 17-year major league career.
But Kelly is breaking new ground. He is the only example of note of an American player who has used the South Korean league as a springboard to the majors. Like St. Louis left-hander Miles Mikolas, who became an All-Star last season after three years in Japan, Kelly has made the transition work in his first three months with the Diamondbacks.
After a short readjustment period, Kelly has settled in nicely. He ranked in the top 21 in the NL in ERA, innings and victories, and he has leant stability to a starting rotation that was in need after Luke Weaver suffered an elbow injury and Zack Godley was moved to the bullpen.
Kelly has taken every turn while logging 94 innings as his next schedule start in San Francisco on Friday approaches. His ERA is lower than that of Madison Bumgarner and German Marquez, and he is tied with Mikolas with eight quality starts, one more than Jon Lester.
Kelly, 7-7 with a 3.93 ERA, also has been a boon to the bottom line of the cost-conscious Diamondbacks, whose current front office liked him when he was in Tampa Bay’s minor league system after being drafted in 2010 and scouted him extensively in South Korea.
General manager Mike Hazen signed Kelly to a two-year, $5.5 million contract with two options that could be worth another $9.5 million. If Kelly’s career continues along its current path, Kelly will become the most valuable of commodities—an affordable, innings-eating starter in a game built around pitching. Three months into his contract, he already is a plus value.
The Diamondbacks would not be among the handful of contenders for the NL wild card contenders without Kelly.
After losing Patrick Corbin and Clay Buchholz to free agency last winter, Kelly became a natural target when Hazen and the front office saw his velocity tick up and his stuff sharpen with maturity in Korea. Kelly was 48-32 with a 3.86 in 119 games for SK Wyverns.
“The stuff we saw in the Far East … the mix of pitches, strike-throwing ability. I think that (KBO) is a good environment for pitchers because it can play a little offensive over there. It is a good challenge for pitchers who pitch over there,” Hazen said.
Mikolas’ successful return from Japan did not inform Arizona’s decision to sign Kelly, Hazen said. Kelly’s performance did that. At the same time, “if anything else on a greater scale, it has probably opened up eyes of potential opportunities to find talent from all over the world,” Hazen said.
Kelly, 30, has been at his best since being knocked around in San Diego on May 22, when he gave up four runs on five hits and four walks while getting only four outs in a 5-2 loss. He has won four of his last five starts, posting a 2.65 ERA with 32 strikeouts against four walks in 34 1/3 innings.
“For sure he had to build his confidence up and understand that he does belong here,” Arizona pitching coach Mike Butcher said. “It’s natural for anyone who gets the first taste of the big leagues. There was a good discussion on the mound (in San Diego). Probably even a better one after that. It’s like, ‘You have to start believing in yourself.’”
It was a process, Kelly said.
“More than anything, it was a mindset,” he said. “I think part of it was just trying to get accustomed to the new life. The new routine. The new travel. The new teams. The new guys. I’m the type of guy who usually takes me a minute to feel comfortable around new situations in general.
“More than that, even though the results had been pretty good other than a couple of hiccups, I felt like I wasn’t doing what I know that I can. I wasn’t attacking the way I know I can. Mediocre is a bad term, but that’s kind of how I felt. It took me a minute to finally say, ‘Screw it.’ I’m over the inconsistency. I got to a point where I was tired of not being myself.”
A Phoenix area native, Kelly recently has demonstrated why the Diamondbacks aggressively sought to sign him, basically pre-empting other landing spots. The contact negotiations were quick and simple.
The terms were “more than fine,” Kelly said. “The fact that it was multi-year was definitely more than I expected. I could not be more content with what I have. There are a lot of people who would trade spots with me in a heartbeat.
“My journey to get here is much different than a lot of people’s. But if I were to go back and do it again, I would probably do the same thing. Obviously if I knew that I would be sitting here, that’s an easy answer. But even if I didn’t, at the time that I went, it was the best decision for my career.”