As a former first-round pick who dominated older competition to the tune of a 2.08 ERA in 2009, Casey Kelly came into the 2010 season with big expectations. Super-size big. Despite having thrown just 95 professional innings, Kelly was tabbed as a potential ace, labeled “untouchable,” and anointed the top prospect in the Red Sox system. When it was announced that Kelly would take up pitching full-time last off-season after previously splitting time between the mound and shortstop, many even speculated that he would continue his rapid ascent and possibly even see time in the Boston bullpen come September.
But through July 21, Kelly is 3-4 with a 4.85 ERA and a 1.59 WHIP for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, unable to replicate his dominant 2009 performance. Still, the high expectations have not changed all that much, and for good reason.
To start, at just 20 years old, Kelly is the second-youngest pitcher in the Eastern League (by just seven days at that), regularly facing hitters that are three to four years older and with significantly more professional experience. To put things in perspective, Kelly came into the season with similar expectations that many scouts had of current Red Sox ace Jon Lester during his rise through the system, and Lester spent his season at age 20 going 7-6 with a 4.28 ERA for High-A Sarasota.
To his credit, Kelly remains realistic.
“I really didn’t have any expectations coming in,” Kelly said. “Having it be my first full year pitching and being in Double-A was kind of exciting in itself, but there really was no expectation. My only expectation was to come here and learn a lot and become a better pitcher, and I think this half of the season I’ve done that.”
While Kelly certainly holds himself to a high standard, his positive outlook and modest hopes for the season have helped shield him from the outside pressure that could come with being the 10th-ranked player in ESPN’s mid-season prospect rankings, a top-25 player on Baseball America's mid-season list, and the top-billed prospect on the SoxProspects.com player rankings.
“I don’t feel that much added pressure. I’m in Portland right now, and if I pitch well and they call me up to Pawtucket, then that’s what happens,” he said. “I think you can always just try to think about things on a day-to-day basis. I’m here in Maine playing for the Sea Dogs. I love it here and I’m having a great time playing with my teammates. Whatever happens, happens.”
For a young, relatively inexperienced pitcher being pushed as he is, the ups and downs of Kelly’s 2010 campaign are to be expected. The Red Sox promoted Kelly to Double-A knowing full well that he would experience some bumps in the road, understanding that young players need to struggle in order to learn how to make adjustments and how to overcome adversity.
To compare Kelly with another former star pitching prospect, consider the case of Clay Buchholz, who, like Kelly, also began his second full professional season in Portland. At the age of 22, Buchholz cruised through the Eastern League in 2007 with a 7-2 record and a 1.77 ERA in 15 starts, ultimately finishing that season with a no-hitter for the Red Sox. However, he had never encountered the adversity that he faced the following season at the big league level, and Buchholz ultimately needed to take a few steps back to get to where he is today.
Like Buchholz, Kelly had never faced the relative adversity that he has this season, going even as far back as 2008 when he was named Florida's Mr. Baseball while at the same time starting as an SEC-caliber quarterback at Sarasota High School. He now takes the adversity that he’s facing in the minors as a learning experience.
“In baseball, you’re going to go through times where you deal with failure and you’re going to go through times when you feel good out there and things don’t go your way. It’s how you deal with it that matters,” he said. “You have to be the same guy every day. You can’t get too high after good outings or too low after bad ones. I think the difference between good players and great players is that good players let slumps last a month and great players let them last a week, so it’s all about how you react to those bumps.”
But despite what the statistics may show at first glance, Kelly has also shown flashes of brilliance in 2010. His fastball remains among the best, if not the best, in the system. Due to both simply growing into his frame and an off-season conditioning program that focused on preparing him to pitch a full season, Kelly has gained velocity this year, now sitting in the 92- to 94-mph range with more consistency. Meanwhile, he continues to refine his secondary pitches, including his 12-to-6 curveball, which sits between 76 and 78 mph, and his low-80s changeup, both of which have been labeled by many scouts as the best in the system.
However, with his increased arm strength, he’s lost some of the once-impeccable control and command of those pitches, and he’s been operating over the middle of the plate too much -- throwing the kind of mistake pitch that he may have gotten away with in A-Ball, but one that Double-A hitters regularly take advantage of. Kelly has worked on getting that control back over the course of the season, while at the same time working on the finish of his pitches, looking to create a tighter rotation and working on adding more deception out of his delivery.
“It’s definitely been different,” Kelly admitted. “I’ve never thrown this hard in my career, but you have to control it. My curveball is a lot better this year, and so is my changeup, so it’s just about handling all of those pitches and going through the bumps in the road that will ultimately make me a better pitcher.”
He also has worked on throwing his secondary pitches more consistently for strikes.
“My [secondary] stuff this year has been a lot better than it was last year, and I think the first half of the year was me learning how to control both my changeup and curveball,” he said. “I’m trying to throw them in the zone and to start my curveball a little higher so that it drops in for strikes, because throwing a strikeout curveball is a lot different from throwing it early in the count for strikes. I think both of those pitches have really come a long way in terms of throwing them for strikes.”
Kelly’s peripheral stats reflect his simultaneous improvements and struggles. His strikeout ratio has jumped from 7.01 K/9 in 2009 to 8.23 K/9 in 2010. His line also indicates that he has been significantly more unlucky this season with batted balls dropping in as hits, as his opposing batting-average-on-balls-in-play (BABIP) has increased from .231 in 2009 to .366 in 2010 (for reference, the Eastern League average BABIP is .301). One would expect that Kelly’s numbers may improve solely on the basis of luck should those figures regress back to the norm.
However, his walk rate has also jumped, from a miniscule 1.52 BB/9 last season to 3.38 BB/9 in 2010. Also, part of the increase in the number of hits that Kelly has allowed in 2010 is attributable to the fact that opposing hitters are hitting line drives at a rate of 17.8 percent in 2010, up from 11.6 percent in 2009 (a number that could be partially attributable to the whims of different official scorers).
Now that he can no longer rely solely on his “stuff,” Kelly needs to continue to work on the finer aspects of pitching, such as showing all of his pitches in all counts, spotting up regularly on the corners to avoid mistake pitches, and maintaining poise in the face of a tough inning. Still, that challenge appears not to faze Kelly, whose two starts following the All-Star Break have been stellar, striking out 13 hitters over 12 innings while allowing only 3 runs and putting up an 18/3 groundout-to-fly-out ratio.
“For me, it’s really a matter of going out and doing the same thing in the second half that I have been doing,” he said. “I definitely think I’m a better pitcher now than I was at the beginning of the season, and towards the end of the year I’m going to be putting up the numbers that I thought I might put up. Everything will kind of equal itself out.”
Mike Andrews is designer and developer of SoxProspects.com and a special contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Jonathan Meoli of SoxProspects.com contributed to this article.