HomeTrending MLB NewsKevin Kelly Is a Tampa Bay Find With a ‘Unique Look’

Kevin Kelly Is a Tampa Bay Find With a ‘Unique Look’

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Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Kelly is proving to be yet another diamond in the rough for the Tampa Bay Rays. Acquired from the Cleveland Guardians via the Colorado Rockies in the December 2022 Rule 5 draft, the 26-year-old right-hander has since logged a 3.14 ERA and a 3.24 FIP in 73 appearances out of the Rays bullpen. Attacking the strike zone from a low arm slot, Kelly has fanned 74 batters while allowing 70 hits and just 16 walks over 86 innings.

His prospect profile was modest at best. A 19th-round pick in the 2019 draft out of James Madison University, Kelly was unranked prior to changing organizations, and going into last year he was conservatively assigned a 40 FV and a no. 27 ranking on our Rays list. Which isn’t to say that Eric Longenhagen didn’t recognize Kelly’s potential. Pointing to the side-slinger’s east-west arsenal and ability to keep the ball out of the air, Longenhagen wrote that Kelly had a chance to stick on Tampa Bay’s roster and be “a great option out of the bullpen when you need a ground ball to get out of a jam.”

Inducing worm-killers is indeed one of Kelly’s greatest strengths. Per Statcast, his 48.2% ground ball rate ranked in the 78th percentile last season, and this year he’s currently in the 91st percentile at 55.6%. And it’s not as though he doesn’t miss a reasonable amount of bats. His strikeout rate might not be anything to write home about, but at 23.0% it dwells in middle of the pack of major league hurlers.

According to Tampa Bay pitching coach Kyle Snyder, the righty reliever’s success is based on multiple factors.

“There is definitely a deception component to the unique arm action, to the acceleration pattern,” Snyder said. “His sinker, especially right now, is generating probably an extra inch and a half of [inverted vertical break] compared to last year, so there is additional depth. It’s a pretty steep cliff. He’s been able to seam shift a little bit better this season. His sweeper also generates a lot of vertical IVB, so along with the [sinker to the] arm side, he’s got vertical lift on the glove side.”

Kelly cited two key changes to his arsenal that helped him turn the proverbial corner and become a viable big league candidate. In 2022, Cleveland’s then Double-A pitching coach Owen Dew taught Kelly how to throw his sweeper. The previous season, he started throwing his fastball a bit harder, though its velocity is still rather pedestrian, ranking among the slowest heaters in the league at 90.7 mph. That extra oomph, he said, was the result of better conditioning.

“In college, I was 84 to 88 as a starter,” Kelly told me. “I was 88 in the first inning and usually 84-86 in the sixth. Then, once I got to pro ball, I lost 30 pounds, which helped me move faster. The less fat you’ve got on you, the quicker you’re going to move. I also shortened up a little bit — I’d been very long with my arm action — and that helped as well.”

Kelly now carries 200 pounds — “right on the dot” — on his 6-foot-2 frame, and he propels that weight down the slope with extreme extension. At 7.4 feet, it ranks in the 98th percentile among his contemporaries.

“I kind of jump off the mound,” explained Kelly, who described his delivery as whippy. “I guess I get some true extension as well, but if you watch my video you can see from the side that I’m definitely not your traditional ‘keep the right foot down the whole time and just slowly go down.’ So, I kind of jump a little bit. I’ve always kind of had that, even when I was bigger.”

The arm angle with which he delivers his three pitches — Kelly also throws an occasional cutter, which he learned in 2022 — has changed somewhat over the years. He used to throw from both a higher and lower slot, then after switching exclusively to a lower slot, he saw his arm “slowly drift down a little, by accident.” He feels that this even lower arm angle has only helped him to get more depth on his sinker, which he considers to be his best pitch.

The extent to which his sinker grip is unique, as opposed to rare or even standard, is subjective.

“It’s nothing crazy,” Kelly said. “I’m just right on… I guess it might be a little weird. Some people are right on the railroad tracks, so to speak, and I grip it where it crosses; the horseshoe is on those fingertips. I don’t know if that’s different, or even if adds to the movement, but it’s what comfortable for me.”

That Kelly has comfortably settled into a role in a big league bullpen is one thing that isn’t in question. Following up nicely on last year’s successful rookie campaign, he not only has a 3.32 ERA and a 3.77 FIP over 16 appearances comprising 19 innings, he’s punched out 18 batters and issued just one free pass. As Snyder put it, “He attacks the strike zone. He’s a quiet competitor, and we’ve seen how far he’s come from being a Rule 5. And again, he creates a very unique look.”

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