No longer ‘the guy from Korea,’ Merrill Kelly more confident with D-backs

Feb 19, 2020, 3:58 PM
Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly throws against the St. Louis Cardinals during t...
Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly throws against the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Last season, Merrill Kelly entered his rookie MLB season with a wildly different story than anyone else on the Arizona Diamondbacks. People were curious if his game would translate to the Show.

“I kind of got caught up in, I’m the guy from Korea that they signed to a big league deal and they’re going to put me right in the rotation and I got expectations that I shouldn’t have been paying attention to,” Kelly told Bickley & Marotta on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station Wednesday.

South Korean baseball is different than the Major Leagues, even beyond the talent level. Kelly said players think and react differently and are taught different instincts than what players in the United States learn.

Coming to America, Kelly had to get used to the playing style of his peers while entering the majors.

“It was kind of survival mode there for a little while, everything was moving pretty fast,” he said.

Now entering year two with Arizona, Kelly has more confidence.

“I’m way more excited for this season than I was last year. As much as last year was great, it was special being my first year, there was just a lot of new things that I didn’t really account for that I thought I would handle a little better,” he said “I know that stepping on the mound I can compete and I belong here rather than trying to feel my way through.”

After a solid start to his MLB career and dropping his ERA to 3.77 in mid-July, Kelly entered a slump during which he was “probably the worst starter in the big leagues,” by his own admission. Over seven starts from July 23 through Aug. 29, he had an 8.91 ERA in 33.1 innings pitched.

Kelly worked his way out of the slump and avoided manager Torey Lovullo pulling him from the rotation, posting three seven-inning shutouts over his final five starts.

“I had a lot of difficult conversations with Merrill through the course of last year and ultimately came down to one challenge,” Lovullo said after spring training workouts Wednesday. “He took that challenge and ran with it and he performed at an all-star level the last month.”

Over five September outings, Kelly had a 2.18 ERA in 33.0 innings, and that was ballooned by a five-run final outing.

The D-backs now need to figure out which they’ll find more of from Kelly. Asking him for consistent shutouts is unreasonable, but is the 3.77 ERA through 20 games an indicator of who he can be? Or is Kelly more of pitcher he was during what he called the “deep valley” of struggles?

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