At 6’5” and 215 pounds, Kelly, 23, easily personifies everything someone would want physically in a pitcher, including a long, lean frame and the ability to easily generate a low to mid-90s fastball.
The difficulty was always getting him to believe in his talent.
It took him three seasons to get out of extended spring training and short-season Eugene before he finally logged a full year with the TinCaps and the Storm in 2015.
In between he has shown glimpses of what he is capable of, particularly with the Emeralds in 2014 and parts of last year.
This season, after being called up from the Storm in mid-May he has put together one of the better stints of his career. With San Antonio he has a 1.54 ERA in four starts with a 24:7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. A noticeable improvement over his 5.53 ERA with the Storm in six starts this year.
We caught up with Michael to find out what has been clicking in San Antonio.
Why have you pitched so much better in Double-A San Antonio than you did in High-A Lake Elsinore?
Michael Kelly: When I was in Lake Elsinore I thought I was throwing the ball pretty well, but the results just weren’t quite there. When I got here I just kept doing what I’ve been doing and the results started to appear. I’ve started to feel better and better as the season progressed.
It was really just a matter of a few pitches that made the difference.
I’ve always thought that is one of the toughest things with pitchers. If you throw 100 pitches, and 95 of them are great, the five bad ones can make a performance go from good to bad.
Michael Kelly: Very true; the good days are the ones when you get away with the bad pitches.
When I spoke with you in Eugene, you were coming off a big season. You had some success in Fort Wayne and Lake Elsinore but right now things appear to be coming together. What is the biggest change in you as a pitcher from two years ago?
Michael Kelly: Mainly just my mentality; I am staying aggressive in the zone and attacking hitters. In the past I would try to be too fine and nibble.
In the past you would have two or three outings when you would be dominant interspersed with an outing when you got shelled. I’m pretty sure I’m not talking about something you don’t already know, but how are you working on being more consistent?
Michael Kelly: Just becoming more mature as a person and as a pitcher. The more maturity I get as a pitcher I am able to stay more consistent by realizing when something isn’t working, I can use something else.
One of the biggest things about growing as a pitcher is realizing that concept and taking it into games.
When guys like you talk about “trying to not be too fine”, I think that is really tough. Because on one hand if you throw it to catch too much of the plate, people will write/say, “He has to pitch, not just lob it down the middle of the plate.”
If you try the corners too much, the opposite is true. People will write/say, “He has to challenge hitter, not just nibble.” How do you balance that?
Michael Kelly: I think you've just got to take what you are doing on a given day and go from there. Try not to think too much about hitting a corner but throw it in a zone and let your defense do the work for you.
There are certain days where if you do find yourself leaving things to far over the middle, lower your target to try to hit that zone. A lot of times when you try to be pinpoint instead of throwing to an area, that is where you run into the misses,
I always think it is also a bad phrase in how people use the term “pitching to contact” because that doesn’t mean you lob it over the plate it means that you are trying to throw strikes where the batter doesn’t want to hit it.
Michael Kelly: Of course you don’t want to throw it down the middle, but you want to force the batter to offer at something they don’t want too. A weak ground ball or pop out is what you want. If you can keep the pitch count down, you can go deep into games.
How about your pitch mix?
Michael Kelly: Depending on the situations a little more four than two-seam fastballs. I have a little more command with my four-seamer but when I want a ground ball I do go to the two-seamer.
There are certain hitters where the two-seamer works better than the four-seamer.
Michael Kelly: I have a slider, curve and change-up. Different hitter and different situations dictate what I will throw and when.
I thought the organization used to have a policy that you couldn’t have a slider and a curve ball?
Michael Kelly: [laughs] I’ve been around long enough they are giving me a little leeway.
Which is the better one for you?
Michael Kelly: Again it depends which one feels better that day. I think I am capable of throwing either one pretty well and it also depends on the hitter and what his swing looks like.
Generally the mix is about 75% fastballs.
How do you work on building confidence when things aren’t going well? It seems like that takes awhile to develop.
Michael Kelly: It does. I used to think confidence came from results and now I see it as coming from preparation. As long as you prepare for your start the right way and have the right game plan, that gives you a great opportunity.
In a way pitchers are like hitters. If someone gets a hit on a ten-bouncer through the infield but misses with a huge swing on a softball down the middle, you know what was a success and what wasn’t.
Michael Kelly: [laughs]. True, but I’m going to make the mistake look like I planned it all along.