Baseball is finally back, and teams only have a short period of time to get their rosters ready for spring training. Since acquisitions are allowed to happen again, let’s entertain the possibility of the Yankees adding pitching depth by way of trading for a decent back-of-the-rotation arm: Merrill Kelly.
2021 Statistics: 27 games, 158 P, 4.44 ERA, 4.11 FIP, 4.24 xFIP, 19.5 percent strikeout percentage (7.41 K/9), 6.1 percent walk percentage (2.34 BB/9), 2.4 fWAR
2022 Contract Status: Set to make $5,250,000 in 2022. Free agent at season’s end.
Much like my brief introduction when I explored the possibility of trading for Zac Gallen, I’m going to remind readers that I am aware that the Yankees need a legitimate number two behind Gerrit Cole (Luis Severino notwithstanding) and would much prefer they brought in that type of pitcher. Given their recent M.O., though, in conjunction with the reportedly absurd asking prices for front-of-the-rotation guys, I’m not getting my hopes up.
Merrill Kelly, a former Tampa Bay Rays eighth-rounder from 2010, spent a few seasons in the minors before going to Korea to reinvent himself in 2015. After pitching to fairly solid results in four seasons in the KBO, Kelly made his return to North America in 2019 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Since finding himself in the majors, Kelly has thrown 372.2 innings across 64 games in three seasons, with a 4.27 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 20.2 percent strikeout percentage, and 6.6 percent walk percentage. In that time he’s posted a 4.9 fWAR.
Let’s start with the positives. Kelly had a strong start to the 2020 campaign before being shut down with a shoulder injury, and that success was due to his sinker, which was good for a -5 run value that year. In 2021, Kelly was in the 81st percentile in walk percentage, 72nd percentile in barrel percentage, 67th percentile in fastball spin, and 66th percentile in curve spin. All of those are rankings that, of course, are above league average. Kelly also features a decent mix of secondary pitches. Though his four-seamer isn’t particularly good (more on that later), his cutter, changeup, and curveball were all hovering slightly above average last year, while his sinker has also shown potential in the past.
Finally, Kelly’s groundball rate hovered right around league average, sitting at 44.7 percent last year. That would have been the highest groundball rate on the Yankees last season. Considering the fact that New York plays in a sandbox and will likely be chasing the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox, two offensive juggernauts that find themselves in the top 10 in terms of both average launch angle and barrels per plate appearance, getting pitchers that can keep the ball on the ground would probably be a sound investment.
And now for the negatives. As previously mentioned, his fastball, which he inexplicably throws way more than any of his other pitches, sits at just 91.7 mph and he has a habit of letting it leak out over the heart of the plate. That’s a recipe for disaster. In fact, his wOBA on four-seamers was .414 in 2021. In terms of Statcast percentile rankings, Kelly was in the 11th percentile for whiff percentage and 21st percentile for strikeout percentage. As outlined above, his FIP wasn’t really anything to write home about, and his wOBA was right around league average last season. To quote the always-irritating Pete Campbell, not great, Bob.
Despite his middling results, why does Merrill Kelly intrigue me as a trade target? His cutter, and Matt Blake. Last year, the Yankees brought in Lucas Luetge and got him to rely on his cutter with above average movement to get guys out. Much like Luetge, Kelly’s cutter sits in high-80s/low-90s, and has an elite amount of movement versus the average (though, for Kelly’s cutter, the movement comes vertically, while Luetge’s comes horizontally).
If we’re using Luetge’s career revitalization as a template, I think Kelly would make an intriguing project for pitching coach Matt Blake. While he doesn’t have the jaw-dropping stuff that, say, Clay Holmes brought along with him from Pittsburgh, I think that his secondary stuff is good enough to see what Blake can get out of him. With a salary just over $5 million and the fact that he’s off the books next year, Kelly is an intriguing buy-low candidate for the Yankees to stash at the back of the rotation and eat some innings. Anything else they would get from him would be a bonus.
So, to summarize: Merrill Kelly is a pitcher who doesn’t really have any flash to his game, but who doesn’t give up a ton of hard contact, doesn’t walk people, and, for the most part, is able to keep the ball on the ground. While I don’t think Merrill Kelly is the type of pitcher the Yankees need, he is a low-risk, decent-reward gamble that I wouldn’t mind seeing the Yankees take.