July 16, 2010
Scouting Casey Kelly
Some prospects are easier to figure out than others. For instance, take a player like Indians catcher Carlos Santana. He entered the year as one of the top prospects in baseball-a player with special offensive upside for a catcher, but that came with some defensive issues. By early June he was hitting .316/.447/.597 for Triple-A Columbus, the defensive reviews were still not great, and now that he has a near-1000 OPS in the big leagues, as long as he's alive behind the plate, who really cares? Those guys are simple, but what about a player like Red Sox righty Casey Kelly, who is not having the kind of season we're expecting? Well, that's more complicated.
A highly-publicized first-round pick in 2008 who received a $3 million bonus in order to steer him away from playing quarterback at Tennessee, Kelly began his career as both a shortstop and a pitcher, but after dominating on the mound in 2009 and getting dominated at the plate (.222/.302/.340), he finally acquiesced to the Red Sox' desire for him to concentrate on pitching full-time. Sent to Double-A as a 20-year-old, he's rarely, if ever, dominated like he did in 2009, as a quick look at his core statistics show.
Now obviously, pitching in the Eastern League as a 20-year-old is a heady assignment, and some struggles should be expected, but his home run and walk rate have nearly doubled, while his hits allowed is just short of the 2x mark, as the league is batting .302 against him and slugging nearly .500. Yet, he's striking out more hitters than ever as well. It's a strange mix of mostly bad, but a little bit of good, so what's going on here?
Talking to scouts about Kelly just creates more confusion, at least initially. One American League scout who saw Kelly in a recent July start, saw a player who at times didn't match what he was expected. "That's not a plus curveball," said the scout. "He gets very early break, and it's slurvy and he doesn't trust it. Plus curveballs get swings and misses, his doesn't; guys with plus pitches use them to get strikeouts; he doesn't, as he threw maybe five or six all night."
Yet his velocity is certainly there, as he's been throwing a two-seam sinking fastball at 88-90, as well as a four-seam fastball that can get up to 94 mph. "His delivery is synchronized and in flow; he's a big, strong athletic pitcher, and his arm action is outstanding," said a National League scout who saw him in July. "He gets angle and sink and could be really good, but he's not yet."
So what's "wrong" with Kelly? Scouts can agree on this one, as if anything, Kelly might be too smooth. "There's absolutely no deception to him, and he gives hitters such good looks," said the AL scout. The NL evaluator added, "As weird as this might sound, he's almost too smooth; there's nothing funky to him at all. The delivery is so repeatable and simple that he looks like a pitching machine at times."
The biggest issues for Kelly, however, are likely age and experience. He's 20 years old, focusing solely on pitching for the first time in his career, and he entered the year with less than 100 innings of professional experience. According to the NL scout, what he really needs is a bit of a nasty streak. "He needs innings to define himself," the scout explained. "There's just too many hittable strikes and too much out over the plate."
The scout went on to explain that Kelly needs to adopt a more aggressive approach. "The secondary stuff isn't a weapon right now because he's not keeping people off the plate," said the scout. "He needs to throw inside and rearrange some hairdos. I saw the same thing with Jon Lester early in the decade and he figured it out... I bet Kelly will, too."
As differently as the scouts saw him this year, their projection remains the same. "I put him down as a solid third starter with a ceiling," said the AL scout. "The change was plus and there is a lot to like, but he just lacks right-now out pitches."
In the end, the NL scout agreed, saying. "Really, my scouting report is the status quo from the past, and I have him as a No. 3 starter on a first-division team. Everything is good about him."
Despite the struggles statistically, Kelly remains the best pitching prospect in the Red Sox' system by a wide margin, as his potential hasn't changed as much as his timetable. "I think there is a learning curve here, and he's just a little behind that curve right now," said one team official. "We still like him as much as ever."