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Merrill Kelly: A Mid-Rotation Starter in Korea

How many teams are looking for a cheap starting pitcher to be a veteran presence for a young rotation? Looking for an upgrade over what they currently have for starting pitching? Or just need a warm body to fill the hole left by Joe Ross with someone not named Edwin Jackson? As far as I can tell, 10 teams are looking for a 3/4 starter such as Merrill Kelly, especially considering his stats that he has accumulated in this season (maybe he’ll get one more start to add to his excellent season so far) have been particularly impressive. All this when the Rays thought that Merrill Kelly was just a “AAA starter” who could be a bullpen guy in the big leagues.

Merrill Kelly┬áin the minor leagues was a solid minor leaguer who would become a swingman with the Durham Bulls. In his age-25 season, he went 9-4 in 114 IP with a 2.76 ERA, a 3.74 FIP, and a 3.57 xFIP. Which looked good with his 8.53 K/9 and 2.92 BB/9, a .298 BABIP, and a 47.9% ground-ball rate as well. Perhaps he could a solid swingman/fifth starter in the big leagues. The Rays apparently thought otherwise and said either he’d be a bullpen pitcher for the MLB team or a starter in AAA. Merrill Kelly thought otherwise and went to South Korea to play for the SK Wyverns.

Merrill Kelly in South Korea was all right in his first season, with an 11-10 record in 30 games (29 starts), 181 IP, and an ERA of 4.13. With peripheral rates that weren’t as good (6.91 K/9 and 2.69 BB/9). His next season was similar, with a 9-8 record in 31 games, but a great 200 1/3 IP with similar rate stats: 3.68 ERA, 6.83 K/9, and 2.70 BB/9. This year has been very different for him, with a 15-7 record in 29 games and 185 IP with a 3.65 ERA; his rate stats are much more improved, at 8.90 K/9 and 2.14 BB/9.

What is he doing differently to get these improved stats? Why is his ERA as high as it is, despite getting more strikeouts and walking fewer batters? He is allowing more pesky little hits: that is, his defense is not getting as many outs made as it should (1.08 hits per inning this year, vs 1.03 hits per inning in 2015-2016 combined). He has also allowed one more homer and two more doubles than last year, in 15 1/3 fewer IP.

His repertoire:

-4 Seam Fastball – 92-94 MPH (back in 2015, he was throwing 88-91 MPH)

-2 Seam Fastball – couple of miles slower and has slight sink, and runs in an opposite direction. He mixes this pitch well with his fastball

-Cutter – He started to throw this pitch more once he got to Korea and has mixed it well with his other fastballs and change

-Slider – Has a good slider that can break sharply when he’s pitching well. About 83-87 MPH

-Curveball – Decent enough curve but probably not his best pitch. Up 78-80 MPH

-Circle Changeup – Good sinking and running movement. He throws it about 85 MPH. One of his top pitches

What has he improved? Velocity on his pitches, sharper movement to his fastballs and changeup, getting better with the cutter, and improving his control. (This quoted from this article on Reddit: Merrill Kelly scouting report and info, which I think explains his improvements, but I disagree with his assessment of Merrill Kelly’s talent.) Given the talent level of the average hitter in the KBO is around AAA level, he should be able to perform as around a low-3/high-4 starter, as I’d say he is better than the average starter. A funny thing of note is that the Rays have another version of Merrill Kelly named Ryan Yarbrough, who has pitched better than Kelly did at a similar age; hopefully they’ll give him a chance to prove the Rays wrong for letting Merrill Kelly go.

Since he is on the right side of 30 and will pitch the 2018 season at age 29, I’d offer him a three-year deal worth $6 million per year with incentives that could boost the value of the deal to around $24 million over three years, with an option for a fourth season at $7 million (buyout of $2 million) with incentives to boost the option value to $10 million. This is due to his risk, and likely lower than what Phil Hughes was offered after the 2013 season from the Twins.

Who are the 10 teams that could use Merrill Kelly as a starting pitcher? The answers might be more surprising at first glance than other answers. The best choice would be the Miami Marlins for the same reasons listed, but it could become a wild-card contender taking a chance for Kelly to make more money in a playoff cut. The second-best choice is one that is pretty questionable, depending on whether the Nationals are willing to take a risk on a player from the KBO and whether they want someone better than him. But he’d be great for them in place of Joe Ross, and would be an upgrade over their current options; plus he would be cheap enough to fit in their payroll. One issue is that the Nationals have a hitter-friendly park, but not having to face the Nationals would mitigate some of those concerns. The San Diego Padres would be the third-best choice due to the non-DH league, an extremely pitcher-friendly park according to MLB park factors, and multiple available rotation spots, but they are in a tough NL West and aren’t likely to be a playoff team.

The next one is questionable but they would certainly be able to make room for him — the Oakland A’s have always been unconventional, and the park is usually known for being pitcher-friendly. The Twins would be similar to the A’s in those respects and are in fact a playoff threat (I didn’t expect to be saying this about the Twins this year at all). The Royals are practically in a tie with the Twins and A’s due to a pitcher-friendly park, although their team is going to be worse due to many key players leaving (Cain, Hosmer, and Moustakas).

Despite the Rangers having a definite hole in the rotation (who would let Nick Martinez or A.J. Griffin start in an extreme hitter-friendly park?), they are the seventh-best option due to that park, the DH league, and just not having a great team in general. The White Sox are an even more extreme version of the Rangers, and are extremely bad as well; I doubt he’d want to play for such a poor team. Same with the Reds, except there is no DH, but the Reds might want to give younger options a try first. The Orioles have almost all the bad factors: A league with a DH, a hitter-friendly park, a tough division, a bad defensive team, and generally bad development staff that has done more harm than good for its pitchers.

I would love to see one of the top six teams sign Kelly to a contract, since those would be best for him getting another contract after the first one expires. Can’t wait for him to get his shot in the big leagues, to prove his previous doubters wrong, and to have a long and successful career in the MLB.

All stats are owned by their respective owners (ESPN, FanGraphs, KBO, Reddit), I own none of the stats used. All stats are as of 9-23-2017.