FORT MYERS, Fla. — In its own right, the outing by Casey Kelly offered little obvious meaning beyond the opportunity to overcome any stage fright that he might have had this spring.
Anyone who showed up late to City of Palms Park for the Red Sox’ exhibition game against Northeastern University on Wednesday missed the entirety of the pitcher’s spring training unveiling. Kelly threw just 10 pitches in his perfect inning of work. He was pitching against a group of college hitters who represented an imperfect measure of his abilities.
And yet, taken in the context of what Kelly has done on the mound in his still-early professional career, there was plenty that was noteworthy about the performance. Here, then, are a few lessons about Kelly that were highlighted by his first big league spring training game, less than two years removed from his high school career.
HE IS IN AWE OF — AND AWARE OF — HIS SURROUNDINGS
It was just an exhibition game. Even so, Kelly admitted that being on a big league spring training mound — rather than the sleepy back fields of a minor league complex — was different.
By his own admission, he felt “very, very nervous” leading into the start. The 20-year-old was conscious of the visibility of his stage on Wednesday, and even more keenly aware of the fact that he was pitching in front of experienced big leaguers.
“To throw to Victor Martinez, I think I was more nervous about throwing to him than to face hitters. I felt good out there, and I’m excited to get that first outing out of the way,” said Kelly. “I was just excited to put that Red Sox uniform on, get to play on the same field as some of the big leaguers — Bill Hall, Jacoby [Ellsbury], Jed Lowrie, Gil Velazquez.”
The fact that Kelly had the awareness not only that Velazquez was in the lineup but that he had major league experience (nine games of it, to be exact) gave a glimpse into why pitching coach John Farrell has said on more than one occasion that “he gets it.”
KELLY KNOWS HOW TO MAKE A GOOD FIRST IMPRESSION
The results for Kelly in the Red Sox’ 15-0 win were efficient: a five-pitch punchout on a swing-and-miss changeup, a first-pitch fastball that yielded a groundout, and another strikeout on a swing-and-miss change. There was little with which to find fault.
He mixed a 90-92 mph fastball with an already above-average changeup while flashing a curveball. Even in such a brief performance, Kelly — who has just a half-season of pro pitching experience under his belt — was able to impress with the quality of his pitches.
“I just heard that [he's just become a full-time pitcher]. That’s amazing. Shortstop, going to pitch? That’s amazing. I thought he signed as a pitcher. His delivery and all that, it was pretty good,” Sox catcher Victor Martinez marveled after the outing. “The kind of stuff he’s got is amazing for the time he’s been pitching.
“He has some great stuff. He was throwing his fastball in and out, mixing it with his curveball, changeup. He only threw one inning, but he threw pretty good pitches, quality pitches.”
It is not the first time that Kelly has made members of the Sox take notice of his unveiling. To the contrary, every time that he was presented a new mound challenge in 2009, he made an impact on those who watched him.
His first pro game came for Single-A Greenville of the South Atlantic League last April 12 against Greensboro. Kelly produced five shutout innings that day, and caught the attention of Greenville pitching coach Bob Kipper with how natural everything seemed on the mound.
“He just went out there and it was easy,” said Kipper. “That’s what it looked like — his ability to drive the baseball, to leverage the baseball to the bottom half of the strike zone, move the ball in and out, showcasing a swing-and-miss changeup to boot [and throw] a couple of good breaking balls.”
Yet Kipper was even more impressed when Kelly faced his lone moment of adversity. In the fourth inning, he permitted a pair of baserunners with one out. Given that it was his first pro outing, it would have been perfectly normal for Kelly to panic. Instead, he maintained his composure, and retired the next two batters.
“That’s challenge No. 1 as a professional pitcher who now possesses, what, three innings under his belt?” said Kipper. “His ability to keep things under control, to keep things slow or calm, more than anything else was pretty remarkable.”
Following a promotion to High-A Salem, Kelly once again took little time to capture the attention of his club. His 6-1 record and 1.12 ERA in Greenville created a reputation that preceded him. But Kelly allowed no hits or one hit in three of his first six starts with Salem, offering immediate evidence that he was not just a mirage.
“When he got up, there was all the hype. He lived up to it,” said catcher Luis Exposito, Kelly’s teammate in Salem. “It was easy to work with him. He could throw whatever pitch for a strike. He kept his composure no matter what. He looked like a seasoned vet.”
Kelly then concluded the year with another promotion of sorts. Though armed with fewer than 100 pro innings, he received an invitation to the All-Star Futures Game, a showcase for baseball’s top prospects. In front of an announced crowd of more than 36,000, Kelly steered through a scoreless inning in just nine pitches.
“To me, that kind of sums Casey Kelly up: in his first full year of professional baseball,” said Kipper. “He opened enough eyes to get selected to the Futures Game. That’s quite an accomplishment.”
NO FEAR OF CHANGE
Kelly’s two punchouts both came on changeups against right-handed hitters (Tucker Roeder and Frank Campagnone). In its own right, that was somewhat atypical, since right-handed pitchers sometimes reserve the use of a change as a swing-and-miss pitch for left-handed hitters. But Kelly’s change is good enough that he is adept at using the pitch to batters from both sides of the plate.
That speaks to the pitcher’s aptitude, since Kelly didn’t even throw a change when the Sox drafted him. It was something that he was taught in spring training in 2009. In very little time, the offering became an above-average one that he could command consistently, thus making it his best off-speed offering.
“It was something introduced to him early in spring training last year and he kind of ran with it,” said Kipper. “He developed a pretty legitimate changeup, a changeup that possesses sell. It’s deceptive. He had a lot of success with it. The confidence grew in that pitch very quickly.”
Kelly also flashes an above-average curveball at times, though that offering has been less consistent from outing to outing than the change. Even so, the Sox consider that pitch a potential weapon, even if it remains a work in progress.
“Most pitchers, there’s a tendency to try to do too much too soon with a pitch. He falls into that category, where you sometimes odn’t put yourself in position to leverage the pitch,” said Kipper. “But he threw enough quality curveballs to say, you know what? That’s a quality pitch, an impressive pitch.”
RESIDING IN THE STRIKE ZONE
Whether because of his excitement or just the result of getting loose, Kelly missed the strike zone with his first two pitches. From that point, he threw seven of eight pitches for strikes.
No surprise there: In 2009, he walked just 16 batters in 95 innings (1.5 per nine innings). Such numbers were a testament not only to his excellent command but also to his precocious knowledge of how to use it. Exposito suggested that he would set his target for Kelly and then barely needed to move his glove.
“He was right there. If I set up in, he’d put it right there,” said Exposito. “Early and often, he built his zone with the umpires. If he wanted to go another inch off, he’d get it because he’d established that zone.”
“He’s not afraid to pitch to contact,” added Kipper. “He understands that there’s a value to doing that.”
HE IS DEVELOPING, WITH PLENTY OF UNKNOWN ABOUT A POTENTIALLY BRIGHT FUTURE
Kelly has been faced with a number of unique circumstances since the Sox selected him out of Sarasota High School less than two years ago. He left behind a promising football career. He has spent more time as a professional playing shortstop than he has as a pitcher, before making the decision — along with the Sox — that he would commit to full-time life as a pitcher. He was thrust into the hype machine before turning 20.
There is plenty of unknown that lies ahead of Kelly on the mound, not just in his career, but this spring. As he pointed out with a chuckle, Wednesday represented his college debut of sorts — it’s just that, at a time when he would have been a college sophomore had he accepted a two-sport scholarship at Tennessee, Kelly was entering his first professional season as a full-time pitcher.
He has thrown just 10 pitches in a game this spring. He faces a significant number of development steps, starting on Sunday, when he goes to his hometown of Sarasota to pitch against the Orioles in his first true big-league exhibition game.
These outings are more than just showcases for a phenom: Kelly is working on his curveball, working on controlling the running game, working on building strength that may add more power to his fastball down the road. The Sox offer reminders that he is competing for a spot in the rotation of Double A Portland, rather than the majors. They do daydream about a big league future for the right-hander, but without giving a timetable for when those visions might be realized.
All the same, the contest against Northeastern represented an opportunity to start playing a fascinating game of speculation with Kelly. Even the Sox – while mindful of the need to rein in the breathless hype of a pitcher with an incredibly limited body of experience – cannot resist the allure of dreaming about his future.
“What is so interesting is that what you see today isn’t what you’re going to see in a year and a half from now or whenever. He’s going to be stronger. He’s going to be more refined. I do think it’s amazing how when you look at him, he doesn’t look like a kid that just turned 20 that hasn’t pitched,” said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. “This is what’s so interesting about him. You don’t know where he goes. Is he a kid that, when he matures, is he pitching from 93 to 95? Where does he settle in? That’s the fun part.”