Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly is coming off his most complete season as a Major League pitcher.
Four seasons removed from pitching out of Incheon, South Korea, for the SK Wyverns in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), the Arizona native and ASU alum won 13 games for the D-backs in 2022 and pitched to a 3.37 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP.
He was also one of just 11 pitchers across the league to hit the 200-inning mark at 200.1 innings total.
For Kelly, though, there is always room for improvement.
“There were definitely times throughout the year that I definitely could have done better,” Kelly says as he flips a baseball up and down in his hands. “I was pretty disappointed in myself with the last month of the season. I think if I finished the way that I started the rest of the season, I think the numbers look a lot different than it did even though they were solid.”
Moving the needle toward improvement begins for all players in Spring Training. Kelly, however, was selected to play for Team USA at the World Baseball Classic (WBC).
Kelly says his preparation throughout the offseason has been the same as the past, but his pre-regular season innings will come in more high-leverage situations. He sees this as something that will benefit him coming into the new season.
“Each pitch is going to be a lot more high pressure than what you’d normally face in Spring Training,” he says. “The (Spring Training) games, everyone’s kind of just getting their feet wet. It’ll be hit the ground running from Day 1 in the WBC. So, I think transitioning into the season, I think will be a lot smoother, a lot easier, because I’ve just been in those environments.”
The star-studded American roster will also include Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto.
That said, he is looking forward to sharing the clubhouse with Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw.
“His career, it obviously speaks for itself,” Kelly says. “So, the fact that I’ll be able to sit there and kind of pick his brain and just see how he goes about his business is pretty cool.”
To boot, Pool C of the WBC — Team USA’s pool, along with Mexico, Colombia, Canada and Great Britain — will play its games at Chase Field. Playing in his home ballpark, Kelly says he believes this will give him a mental edge in those games.
“It’ll be our own locker rooms, it’ll be our own training room, our own weight room, our own dugout,” he says. “So, it’s not like I’m going to be walking into any stadium that I’m not familiar with. I think being able to take the mound, the vantage points will be all the same. It’s not anything eyewise that I’m not used to seeing. So hopefully that will bode well and just be able to transition straight into the game rather than trying to have to get my bearings.”
Come time for the 2023 season, Kelly says he will look to utilize his pitch mix — a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, cutter, change-up and work-in-progress slider — to keep hitters off balance.
While he says Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman and San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatís Jr. are his most difficult at-bats in the league, Kelly knows that if he executes his plan, the rest will work itself out.
“My goal is to try to make everything look the exact same,” Kelly says. “I’m trying to make it look the exact same as long as I can and make the hitter decide on what (the pitch) is going to be. I’ve never been considered a power guy, so my game is mixing speeds, mixing pitches, giving them different looks.”
For the first time since 2019, where the team won 85 games, Los Serpientes have a real shot to make some noise this year after finishing last year on a hot streak. Knowing this, Kelly is excited to see what the team can put together in 2023.
“I think, honestly, we’re just going to build on last year,” he says. “I think the baseball that we were playing, especially in the second half of the year, was an exciting brand of baseball.
“I’m excited this year. I think the fans are going to see a pretty exciting brand of baseball coming out of the Valley this year, which is something that we haven’t been able to say for the last couple of years.”
The team is full of young talent, and Kelly named top prospect Corbin Carroll as someone he expects to see big things from.
“Obviously, there is a lot of hype around him,” he says. “He works extremely hard. He’s very disciplined on his craft. He cares about baseball a lot. He wants to be really, really good. I see him working every day how he goes about his business. You can tell that baseball is definitely in his blood and he cares about it a lot. So, I’m interested to see him kind of have a breakout year. I think he will.”
For Kelly, there are no guarantees in baseball, but he would love to stay a Diamondback for the rest of his career. As he enters his age 34 season, he acknowledges winning takes precedence, but he grew up in Arizona.
Short of his mother who just recently moved out of the state, his entire family lives here. Additionally, Kelly’s home close to Salt River Fields and Chase Field.
“My contract for this year and next year are guaranteed, and then there’s an option for the third year,” Kelly says. “I obviously envision that option getting picked up. In my mind, I’m going to pitch well enough for that option to get picked up. But I would love to be especially with the direction that we’re going to right now.
“Obviously, this is home for me. I’ve been here since I was 14 years old, and my wife has been here since she was 4. … I definitely wouldn’t be mad if that’s the way it went.”