Arizona catcher Carson Kelly’s “a-ha” moment occurred May 4, when he hit his first major league home run. It has become the stepping-off point to a remarkable first full season.
Kelly’s 425-foot shot over the Stihl sign in center field in Colorado’s Coors Field helped reinforce a belief that he belonged at this level, and he has spent the ensuing three months providing documentation.
“That just took the pressure off me and it allowed me to not put too much on myself,” Kelly said. “Going out there and executing and playing the way I have my entire life, it’s starting to come out. I’m starting to get that comfort.”
Kelly was obtained with right-hander Luke Weaver and prospect Andy Young from St. Louis for Paul Goldschmidt last winter, a trade in which both sides can claim victory.
Goldschmidt has 12 homers and 32 RBIs in the last 32 games while helping the Cardinals in their postseason push, and Kelly has the look of the long-term solution behind the plate in Arizona.
Kelly, 25, is the most productive catcher in the majors since his initial homer, slashing .298/.403/.640 with 10 doubles, 16 homers and a 1.043 OPS in the ensuing 68 games. Since May 4, he leads catchers in homers, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS among those with at least 150 at-bats.
Included have been a pair of game-tying, save-denying, ninth-inning homers against Dodgers’ closer Kenley Jansen, the most recent one coming last Friday, a two-run shot to pull the Diamondbacks into a tie at 2. Kelly followed that with a game-winning homer off Julio Urias in the 11th inning for a 3-2 victory.
Scouts have always seen the hit tool in Kelly, who was the Cardinals’ second-round draft pick out of a Portland high school in 2012, and it is not that Kelly was particularly concerned about his offense.
Yet after 131 plate appearances in limited playing time behind All-Star receiver Yadier Molina in three short stints in the majors from 2016-18, there was a natural tendency to wonder.
“Especially for a guy who has been up and down the last couple of years and not having a ton of success, you start questioning yourself, doing different things,” Kelly said candidly.
“Getting this opportunity here and a fresh start allowed me to be myself and go out and just execute.”
Seattle pitching coach Paul Davis, who spent the previous six seasons in the St. Louis organization as a pitching coach and the manager of pitching analytics, is a believer after seeing Kelly hit 17 homers in 538 at-bats at Triple-A Memphis in 2017-18
“I think he just needs a chance to get every-day at-bats, because he has shown that he can be a productive offensive player in Triple-A,” Davis said this spring. “Once he gets the opportunity to play consistently, I think it will work well.”
As it has.
While learning a new staff that because of injuries and trades has gone through 11 starters, Kelly has thrown out 29 percent of potential base stealers. He ranks sixth in the NL in pitching framing, according to baseball-reference.com, a metric that measures the extra strike calls a pitcher gets when he is behind the plate. Kelly often watches his pitchers in their off-day bullpen sessions.
“Just to see what they are working on, so I can make an adjustment during the game,” Kelly said. “I am always trying to learn more about our guys (so) in crunch time, in big situations, I’ll have that extra experience.”
A third baseman in high school and in his first two years in the Cardinals’ organization, Kelly’s transition has been smooth. Kelly became a regular when the Diamondbacks pared their roster from three catchers to two three weeks the last week of May.
“He has never questioned what we’ve asked him to do, and there is a trust and a confidence between everybody,” Arizona manager Torey Lovullo said. “It’s very powerful. He goes out with a ton of confidence and an empty mind to be the best version of himself.
“He is growing every single day. At some point he is going to be one of the best in the National League. Hard to believe that he is as young as he is and he is playing at this level. It gives us a lot of be excited for.”