Carson Kelly returns with D-backs initially going ’50-50′ at catcher

Jun 12, 2023, 4:58 PM

Carson Kelly #18 of the Arizona Diamondbacks prepares for a game against the Philadelphia Phillies ...

Carson Kelly #18 of the Arizona Diamondbacks prepares for a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Chase Field on June 12, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — It has been quite the sequence of events for Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly in the last six months.

In December, the D-backs traded outfielder Daulton Varsho, and part of the package coming back was promising 23-year-old Gabriel Moreno, a player the Toronto Blue Jays were only OK with giving up because they were working with a position surplus like Arizona.

Coming into spring training, Kelly and Moreno were going to see some level of a timeshare, which is standard for modern baseball at catcher. But Moreno can certainly be viewed as the future of a position Kelly has more or less commanded since his arrival in 2019 when he was viewed as the same.

In late March, Kelly got hit by a pitch on his right forearm, fracturing it and keeping him out all the way until Monday. Kelly was reinstated and got the starting nod right away against the Philadelphia Phillies for his 2023 debut.

Kelly, 28, got what he labeled as a mini-spring training of sorts in Triple-A Reno to fully get himself back in the right rhythm.

It’s difficult to ignore what has changed since he was last with the ball club, though.

With the mainstay Kelly has been, a part of Arizona’s success that has them tops in the National League has to do with how terrific Moreno has been when thrown into the fire.

Moreno entered play on Monday with 179 plate appearances, 17th among all catchers in baseball, per Stathead. He got 73 in his debut season last year for Toronto.

Lovullo in spring training preached patience and Arizona taking a certain tempo with Moreno, despite how exciting his talent is. Kelly’s injury forced the D-backs to loosen that up a bit and Moreno rewarded them.

“It’s awesome,” Kelly said Monday of what Moreno has done. “He’s taken it and done a tremendous job. Talking to (the) pitchers, they really enjoy him back there so it’s gonna be a lot of fun to be back there with him.”

Among the 40 MLB catchers with at least 100 plate appearances, Moreno’s .280 batting average ranks fifth. Moreno’s lower rates elsewhere with walks and extra-base hits have his OPS down at 23rd amongst that group but he’s been great in his first full season at the plate thus far.

On top of that, Moreno’s impressed defensively.

“I mean, obviously, he’s throwing everybody out pretty much,” Kelly said of Moreno. “Which is exciting.”

Indeed. Moreno’s had 14 opposing runners attempt to steal second base and he’s thrown out nine. That 64% rate is only one of two in baseball that sits above 35% for catchers with at least 10 of those throws, per Baseball Savant. Baseball Savant also tracks “blocks above average” for keeping loose pitches corralled and Moreno ranks tied for ninth in that metric.

“Blocking balls and just the day-to-day things by him getting this experience to play and learn,” Kelly said of Moreno. “That’s the biggest things as a catcher, especially a young catcher. When I got called up at 22, just to play. Play, watch, learn, make mistakes, come back and be better. This game is all about growing and I’m gonna learn a lot from him and hopefully he learns a little bit from me.”

Moreno is an exciting player to watch. But Kelly brings intangibles that will be a big boost for the D-backs.

“Just the presence back there,” Lovullo said Monday of Kelly. “Taking control of the pitcher. A pitcher needs guidance sometimes, a pitcher becomes vulnerable sometimes and I think with Carson’s expertise and sight-lines and experience he’s going to be able to put a sign down with conviction. He’s gonna be able to have conversations a little bit deeper than say somebody that is just trying to find their own way.

“Carson has been here for four years and understands what our program is. I think a lot of people respect him and he’s going to get that immediate presence once he steps behind home plate today.”

Lovullo kept it very down the middle with what his approach will be when it comes to splitting time between the two. Moreno’s play certainly has to change the thinking a bit. But on that front, so does the experience Kelly provides for a team currently contending.

The manager said it’ll start at 50-50 and the D-backs will go from there. He even went as far as to say that right now they don’t even want to attach a certain catcher to a certain starting pitcher yet.

Kelly said he hadn’t had a conversation with Lovullo yet on what it’ll look like. But he’s game.

“Yeah,” Kelly said when asked if he’s OK with the possibility of his playing time decreasing compared to previous years. “I’m gonna be ready for whatever it is and go out and compete and I feel like I can really contribute to this team.”

Lovullo wasn’t surprised to hear that was the response and used it as an example for the D-backs’ collective shift.

“It’s a whole mindset thing,” Lovullo said. “There’s been a shift in our mindset over the last couple of years. It’s a selfless mindset and that does not surprise me whatsoever. Carson wants to be our everyday catcher, he’s been our everyday catcher but he understands where he fits into this process.”

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