ST. LOUIS – Casey Kelly threw his last pitch of the season Sunday night. He is one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, and he is perfectly healthy, so if none of this makes sense, understand that little about Kelly’s young career does.
The Boston Red Sox are undertaking a grand experiment in their handling of Kelly, one that could change how teams guide young players who show exceptional talent as a pitcher and everyday player. Kelly is a shortstop, too, a potentially dynamic one, and given his druthers, he’d play there full-time.
And when Boston chose him with the 30th overall selection in the 2008 draft, Kelly said he would turn down a scholarship to play quarterback at the University of Tennessee and sign with the Red Sox under one condition: He gets to play shortstop, even though the Red Sox – and almost every other team – viewed him as a potential top-of-the-rotation pitcher. So Boston offered a compromise: play shortstop in 2008, then pitch the first half of 2009 before returning to shortstop in the second half.
The novelty appealed to Kelly. If he couldn’t be the next Babe Ruth, two-way phenomenon, he’d settle for a modern-day facsimile. Then he went out and put up a 2.08 earned-run average over 95 innings at two levels of Class A, and thus the reality that the Red Sox are shutting down perhaps the best arm in a system loaded with good ones.
“I mean, I’ve had a lot of success pitching,” Kelly said before the All-Star Futures Game, where he pitched a scoreless sixth inning for the U.S. in a 7-5 loss to the World team. “It’s kind of crazy. I want to play shortstop, but should I?”
For Kelly, that’s a familiar question: Should he? Should he go to Tennessee and possibly quarterback the Volunteers in front of 100,000 fans at Neyland Stadium, or should he follow the lead of his father, former major league catcher Pat Kelly, and join an organization that churns out homegrown players like widgets? Should he go for immediate glory or immediate money?
Head and heart both said baseball, and the Red Sox handed him a $3 million bonus, spread over five years because he’s a two-sport athlete. This time, they’re in conflict. His heart is at shortstop. He loathes time between starts. Charting pitches bores him. He wants action. His head knows that a nearly 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio could get him to the major leagues by his 20th birthday.
“Nineteen-year-olds just don’t do this,” Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen said. “He’s certainly surpassed our expectations. Our scouting staff had him nailed as a pitcher. They were raving about him.”
Because of the plan, the Red Sox deviated from their usual innings limits with Kelly. They stretched him to six and seven innings per start, first at low Class A Greenville (where he dominated with a 1.12 ERA) and then at high A Salem (where he has a 3.09 ERA – which drops to below 2.00 if you subtract his one poor start).
In his second start at Salem, Kelly threw six perfect innings. It wasn’t just the domination or six strikeouts that impressed the Red Sox. Kelly needed only 60 pitches to seat 18 hitters, the kind of performance that left observers wondering: This kid wants to be a shortstop?
“I don’t think he was surprised by his success,” Pat said. “He was surprised by everyone’s reaction to it. His brother [Chris, a minor league pitcher] would text him and say, ‘It’s not that easy.’ Casey would text him back and say, ‘Yes it is. I don’t understand why it’s so hard for everyone else.’ “
Such ease complicates Kelly’s decision. He wants to play for the Red Sox. If his right arm takes him there, he wouldn’t dare deny it. Though he’d always wonder if an extra year or two hitting might have helped grow him into a top-flight shortstop.
“Nineteen years old, and I’m trying to predict what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,” Kelly said. “The decision’s going to be made for me by the performance. It’ll stand out which is the best. With the football-baseball thing, it was the same thing. And there’s no wrong choice.”
Kelly’s father, now managing a Gulf Coast League affiliate for Cincinnati, says, unequivocally, “He’s a better position player than a pitcher.” Scouts are almost universal in their disagreement. They love his athleticism at 6-foot-3, 194 pounds, and his glove, and his makeup and attitude. They just wonder about his bat. In 98 rookie-ball at-bats last season, Kelly struck out 34 times. Then he thrived in a promotion to short-season Lowell, piping another layer of ambiguity atop many others.
“There’s so much value in both positions,” Hazen said. “A [No.] 1 or 2 starter or an everyday shortstop – how can you decide? I don’t think anyone presupposes having answers here. When we sat down to map it out, we said we’d take it year to year, and this offseason I think we’re going to have a few meetings.”
Should Kelly thrive, the meetings could grow contentious. Baseball hasn’t seen a true two-way player since Brooks Kieschnick was a relief pitcher/pinch hitter for Milwaukee five years ago. Others tried. Pittsburgh’s John Van Benschoten(notes) experiment ended miserably. Dave Stieb played outfield every day and started every fifth in the minor leagues before staying a pitcher for good. Ken Brett did a little hitting in 1974, Willie Smith a little pitching a decade earlier and Ruth, of course, was downright dominant until the Yankees made him a full-time hitter and watched him crank 54 home runs in his first season with no pitching duties.
Kelly looks at the first half like a football season. He played about once a week. He asked the Red Sox, jokingly, whether he could pinch hit in an extra-innings game. (No.) He took batting practice twice a week.
“And it’s gone surprisingly good,” Kelly said. “I haven’t missed a beat.”
So he’s off to the Red Sox’s spring training complex in Florida for a week to take hundreds of ground balls and swings before shipping back out. He might go to Lowell. He might go to Greenville. Doesn’t really matter.
The experiment is about to get even more interesting