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D-backs Kelly’s journey to first MLB win was far from short

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly throws to a Los Angeles Angels batter during the second inning of a spring training baseball game Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

For some major league players, a season or two overseas is a chance to rediscover themselves after struggling to find success stateside. For Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly, his four seasons overseas offered him opportunity.

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.

In 2014, his last season in the Rays farm system, Kelly reached Tripe-A Durham and posted an impressive 2.76 ERA in 114.0 innings while splitting roles as both a starter and a reliever. After his successful season in Triple-A, Kelly had dreams of either making the Rays’ 40-man roster or being selected as a Rule 5 draft pick.

When he received the news that neither of those dreams had come true, Kelly got a call from the SK Wyverns of the Korea Baseball Organization. In the four years he spent in the Rays farm system, he had taken on the role of swingman, someone who starts and pitches out of the bullpen when asked. So when the Wyverns offered Kelly the opportunity to become a full-time starting pitcher, he found it hard to say no.

In a phone interview with MLB.com back in December, Kelly admitted he had never heard of the KBO until the Wyverns reached out to him.

“I knew of the NPB, I knew of guys that had gone over to play in Japan for a long while, but I had never heard of the KBO and didn’t know there was a professional league in Korea,” Kelly told MLB.com.

When Kelly ultimately made the decision to play in the KBO, he had already started down a path that most major league pitchers hadn’t taken.

Many pitchers who seek help overseas tend to find themselves in Japan before returning stateside. Current major league pitcher Miles Mikolas and retired pitcher Ryan Vogelsong both took this route due to the pitcher-friendly reputation that the Japan Central League carries.

As for the KBO, the reputation it carries is quite the opposite.

Since it’s founding in 1982, the KBO has been more well known for helping hitters find more power than helping pitchers find success. For example, current Milwaukee Brewers first baseman/outfielder Eric Thames spent three seasons in the KBO after finding little success in the United States. After spending two years in the majors, Thames ultimately left for Korea to find a way to rediscover his swing and improve his power. Thames succeded in his efforts and ended up tallying 124 home runs over his three seasons in the KBO.

Even with the KBO’s hitter-friendly reputation, Kelly recorded a 3.86 ERA in 118 starts, while only making one relief appearance. Kelly also saw improvement in his fastball velocity, increasing his average speed to 92 MPH.

After four seasons in Korea, Kelly, who grew up in Arizona, finally reached those dreams he set out for in 2014 when he signed a two-year contract with the D-backs in December of 2018.

On Monday, the 30-year-old finally recorded his first major league win in his MLB debut against the San Diego Padres.

All in all, Kelly’s journey may not have been an ideal one, but it provides D-backs fans another reason to root for the desert native for years to come.

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