Merrill Kelly on pitching in KBO to D-backs extension: ‘It’s been a whirlwind’
SCOTTSDALE — A day like Friday felt far beyond reach five years ago for Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly.
He was pitching in the Korean Baseball Organization for the SK Wyverns after his first crack at the majors out of college did not work out.
Following his fourth season in South Korea in 2018, the D-backs approached him with a contract offer. The now-33-year-old signed his first MLB extension on Friday after three seasons with Arizona.
Kelly, who was set to become a free agent after the season, agreed to a two-year extension through 2024 reportedly worth $18 million with a club option for 2025.
“It’s been a journey. And I’m glad that … it’s culminated kind of to where we are right now,” Kelly said on Friday.
“Never ever has he taken anything for granted and that’s always been something that stands out for me,” manager Torey Lovullo added. “But he’s learned and has grown and developed over the past several years. Very deserving of this opportunity.”
Kelly not only gets contract assurance, but he does so with his hometown team. He attended Desert Mountain High School, then Yavapai College and Arizona State University before getting drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010.
Committing to Arizona was also important to Kelly because his daughter, Hadley, was born seven weeks ago and the possibility of having to move as a free agent no longer looms.
“When I got down to it and weighing whether we should take it or take the chance in free agency, I racked my brain and went through all the different scenarios,” Kelly said. “There really isn’t too many other places that I would want to play. Not only just because it’s home, because of our situation here, we don’t have to move for spring training and go somewhere else. I love the staff, I love my teammates.”
Kelly started 64 games over the past three seasons which is the most among D-backs pitchers.
He posted a 4.44 ERA in 27 outings last year while allowing career lows in barrel percentage and expected slugging percentage, according to Baseball Savant.
General manager Mike Hazen said he felt Kelly has improved his command throughout his time in Arizona, and he has dug into his pitching arsenal more. The veteran pitcher threw 5% fewer fastballs in 2021 compared to 2019, as he relied more heavily on a cutter and changeup.
“Merrill’s been probably our most consistent starter over the last few years, a lot of credit to the scouts that recommended signing him a few years ago,” Hazen said.
“I think the stability that he provides, the pitch mix, the ability to attack different types of hitters … we feel like he’s gotten better as he’s gone on. … I think that stability and talent and performance is a reason why this was attractive for us.”
Hazen also complimented Kelly’s ability to lead by example, which could help as some younger arms make their way to the big leagues.
Kelly said everything felt like it was moving a million miles per hour when he first arrived with the D-backs and he called his journey a whirlwind.
However, he feels that he has settled in over the past three seasons and is looking to continue getting better in 2022.
Kelly has been working on a few adjustments with new pitching coach Brent Strom to improve his productivity, although he does not want to give too much away before the season starts.