Boston Red Sox minor-league reliever Zack Kelly had an impressive 2021 season that was split between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Worcester, as he accomplished the impressive campaign after blowing out his elbow just a year prior and nearly received a callup during the Sox’s COVID-19 outbreak.
Kelly blew out his elbow in his first live BP with the Angels in spring training of 2020. The righty said he felt a bit of soreness in the offseason leading up to the 2020 season, but tried to work through it.
“I felt a little soreness but I didn’t feel like anything was torn,” Kelly told Boston Sports Wave. “So, I just tried to work through it.
“Then, I tried to rehab it when everybody got sent home (because of the pandemic) because I didn’t really have any other choice. But by the time May rolled around, once I got over anything 80%, I could just tell it wasn’t right. So obviously I had to go to try and take care of it again.”
The right-hander went 3-1 with a 1.69 ERA and a 3.60 xFIP across 21 relief outings with the Sea Dogs in Double-A, tallying five saves before getting called up to the WooSox. On the night the 26-year-old was called up, his wife was flying in to see him play. Little did his wife, know, she’d be flying in to see his Triple-A debut.
“I kind of had a little bit of a feeling because the game that night, it was kind of a situation where I thought I would usually come in,” said Kelly. “And, I didn’t go in, and so, I was actually trying to get out of the clubhouse in a hurry — my wife, her flight was earlier than expected.
“So, after the game, she was supposed to be an hour away but she was actually at the airport,” Kelly continued. “My manager (Corey Wimberly) called me in and said, ‘Great job in Portland and you’re going up to Worcester.’ It was awesome because I got to go up with (Jhonny) Pereda and (Ryan) Fitzgerald. I went and packed, I went and picked up my wife, and we literally drove to Worcester that night.”
The righty set his goal before the season, and he accomplished it. He not only got to Worcester, but he also pitched a 2.89 ERA with a 2.46 xFIP and had an impressive 13.98 K/9 with the WooSox in 15 relief outings.
Kelly also had a 32.0 K-BB% in Triple-A, which is a better mark than any major-league hurler posted in the 2021 season — the highest was Brewers NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes with 30.4%.
“At the very minimum, at some point during the year, I wanted to get up to Worcester — I accomplished that goal,” Kelly said. “Obviously, I would have liked to be called up to the big leagues at some point which didn’t happen but I kind of had a feeling that I was gonna go to Portland (to start the year). I was in Double-A in 2019, and then after the injury, I kind of had a feeling that I was gonna go to Portland so I just tried to make the most of that opportunity while I was there.”
Kelly enjoyed his experience at Worcester, especially at home. The new ballpark provided an atmosphere that’s very rare at a minor-league stadium.
“It was awesome,” he said. “Being so close to Boston, some of the fans that see some of the Red Sox guys that are kind of up and down, it gives them a chance to come see them play. The ballpark there is unbelievable — I think that it attracts a lot of fans because of that. Obviously, when (Chris) Sale was there it was every bit of 14,000 people which was unbelievable.”
The Virginia-born hurler did almost get called up to the majors as he had hoped to. Boston’s COVID-19 outbreak saw the major-league debuts of Kutter Crawford, Kaleb Ort, and Connor Seabold. Kelly was in the mix to be called up.
“I thought I had a chance — I knew that there was probably a couple other guys that were gonna get up there before I did, but during that time nobody knew anything,” the righty said when asked if he thought he was going to be called up during the outbreak. “You’d be just kind of waiting every single day to see all the test results in the big leagues. And seeing guys go up, guys like Kaleb Ort, me and him grew close together while we were in Worcester and it was awesome to see him get up there — he’s had a winding road career but it was awesome to see him and guys like that get up there. Kutter (Crawford), (Connor) Seabold, it was cool to see.”
Each of Kelly’s 36 outings between Double-A and Triple-A were relief appearances. The Newberry alum did start however in college and in 2019 with the Angels. Kelly’s 2019 with the Angels in Double-A saw him post a 3.82 ERA through his 13 starts and seven relief appearances.
“I started all throughout college and even my first couple of years in pro ball,” said Kelly. “The box score will show it as a relief appearance but from an organizational standpoint, I was a piggyback starter. We would have a guy start, and he would go three or four innings and I would follow up with him for three or four innings, and then we would go to the bullpen.
“I kind of flirted between there and being like a long reliever,” he continued, “and (with the Angels in Double-A during 2019) they gave me an opportunity to start — to be a true starter — in my second year with the Angels. I started out the year as a piggyback starter and then once we kind of made some moves, sending guys up to Triple-A Salt Lake, I was able to kind of have my own day, and then I just kind of rode that out for the rest of the season.”
Kelly was not drafted but did sign Athletics out of college. Kelly slated a 3.77 ERA through 13 relief outings with Oakland’s rookie ball team in 2017 but he did not return for the following season.
“I was with the A’s out of college in 2017 and then I had a shoulder flare-up in spring training of 2018. I rehabbed for a little bit, and when I came back, I think I kind of rushed back a little bit,” Kelly recalled. “So, I wasn’t fully ready to go and they thought I was. The progress that I showed obviously didn’t bring much to the table from them and so I kind of understood their reasoning. I felt like I still had a good opportunity to play somewhere else after that which obviously happened with the Angels. After I rehabbed (and was still with Oakland), I was 23, and topping out at 87, 88, which obviously doesn’t bring much to the table.”
The right-hander would spend 2018 and 2019 with Los Angeles but was cut after his shoulder injury in spring training of 2020 with the Angels (before the COVID shutdown). The 26-year-old then signed with the Sox before the 2021 season.
“They reached out when free agency opened, and there was a couple different teams interested,” remarked the righty. “But talking to the front office and the pitching staff, I liked the direction they’re headed. I like how open they are with analytics and all the data — they’re very good about giving us access to that. Obviously, you can kind of see the direction that they’re headed with the year that they just had.”
Kelly talked about his college experience as well.
“In my first two years in college I went up to a Division II school in Virginia called Concord University — it was great up there. Fortunately, I was at 100 innings after my sophomore year which is really good for me, and really good for development. But, I felt like, if I wanted to have a chance to play pro ball, that it wasn’t going to be there.”
Kelly talked about his decision to commit to Concord out of high school, and how he was planning on being a two-way player before he made the rotation in the fall of his freshman year.
“I played on a travel team in North Carolina, and I got some offers down there from some lower level D1 schools, but I just wanted to go somewhere where I could play and where it was a good team. My senior year of high school, Concord won 38 games and won the conference tournament. They were a successful program. I originally went there to pitch and play outfield and then after the fall of my freshman year when I made the rotation, I kind of had to put outfield to the side and stop hitting. It was logistically a good fit for me academically, and the way to play both ways; which obviously was intriguing to me although it didn’t work out. But, at the time, that’s where my head was at.”
Through his two seasons with Concord, Kelly went 12-5 with a 4.40 ERA starting in 20 of his 22 outings. Kelly wanted to go Division I but didn’t want to sit out a year with the NCAA’s transfer rule that was in place at the time, so he chose Newberry — a Division II school in Virginia.
“I tried to find where the best baseball was, and so I kind of narrowed down some schools between South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida,” he said. “And then I kind of crossed off all the D1 schools just because I didn’t want to sit out a year. There’s really three main conferences down here, and so I just kind of looked at the top half of each one, and looked at who of their guys were losing and how many spots would be open in the rotation, and ultimately, it fell on Newberry. We had a pitching coach who played at Clemson and played pro ball, and so me and him got along great and he was really good for me.”
The 26-year-old’s two seasons at Newberry were a success, as the righty hurled a 3.36 ERA across 27 outings (26 starts), per Newberry’s site.
Growing up in Virginia, Kelly wished he had been able to go to Virginia Tech — the school he grew up rooting for. But he says he likely was not good enough.
“I lived 30 minutes away from there, and a lot of my buddies went there. I would’ve liked to go there, but I don’t think I was good enough when I was in high school to go there.”
Kelly looks to continue the success he had in 2021, and he could possibly be in the running for a spot in Boston’s 2022 bullpen.
“Just being in a great system as far as player development, and talking about what works and what doesn’t work. I really try to buy into that.”
Here’s his scouting report on SoxProspects.com:
Physical Description: Filled out right-hander with a mature frame. No remaining projection.
Mechanics: Throws from a three-quarters arm slot. Starts on the first base side of the rubber. Medium leg kick. Stiff delivery. Arm hook behind. Rocks back at his peak and then drop and drive as he comes forward. Inconsistent release point.
Fastball: 93-95 mph. Heavy fastball, generates a lot of weak contact on the ground. Potential above-average offering.
Cutter: 88-90 mph. Short, horizontal break. Potential fringe-average offering.
Changeup: 80-83 mph. Good separation from fastball. Pitch shows late fade. Potential average offering.
Slider: 83-84 mph. Hasn’t incorporated often in outings scouted in 2021.