If you asked any number of writers, analysts, and baseball fans who the top pitchers in the National League are, there's little chance Merrill Kelly would come to mind right away.
With Zac Gallen being a major part of the NL Cy Young Award race in 2023, many would consider him to be far and away Arizona's ace. While Gallen has certainly had a good season and has proven himself to be worthy of said title in previous seasons, Merrill Kelly has been quietly making a case for himself to be mentioned among the best pitchers in baseball this year.
Despite some hiccups against the Dodgers, who tend to beat up on even the best pitchers, Kelly's 2023 season has been excellent, even with a stint on the IL.
He's worked his way to an 11-6 record with a solid 3.22 ERA in 25 starts. Kelly has only allowed 17 home runs in those 25 games, and generally keeps runners off the bases, with a solid 1.17 WHIP.
With regards to the Cy Young race, Kelly is a non-factor. He sits at the 13th-best odds to win the NL's award. However, let's look at how he matches up with some of the top candidates for the award:
Kelly sports a better ERA than Spencer Strider (3.56), more strikeouts in one fewer appearance than Justin Steele (159 to 153), and a lower WHIP than Blake Snell (1.25). Against teammate and former Cy Young frontrunner Zac Gallen, Kelly has a better ERA (3.48) and K/9 (9.66 to 9.39). His ERA had dipped below 3.00 before giving up 7 runs at Dodger Stadium.
While Kelly was never considered to be the heavy strikeout guy of the D-backs' rotation, his recent performances have been rewriting that narrative. Removing, once again, his 5 inning blowup start vs the Dodgers, Merrill Kelly had tied his career high in strikeouts twice, eclipsing 10 Ks in 3 of his last 4 appearances, with 38 Ks over the month of August.
While previously considered a versatile soft-contact pitcher, Merrill has done an excellent job using the zone, consistently catching guys looking. Kelly's 159 Ks are the most he's had in an entire season in his Major League career, despite being 34 years old and having completed fewer starts so far than all but one of his previous seasons.
It isn't velocity that makes Kelly such a weapon. While his pitches don't tend to move drastically, batters never know if the ball is going to paint the corner of the zone or take a dive. Kelly is able to leverage looking Ks on his fastball and cutter right on the edge of the zone, to get guys to swing at his changeup.
Merrill Kelly has been excellent in 2023. Although being a bit overshadowed by Zac Gallen's 2022 and 2023 seasons, the Mainstay has been the most consistent performer on this D-backs' rotation over the past few years, and only seems to be improving as time passes.
The main concern with Kelly at the moment has to do with his recent issue with cramping. Kelly has had to leave multiple starts early, twice in games where he was dealing 12 strikeouts. He exited his most recent start after one pitch coming out to start the 8th inning and was visibly frustrated leaving the field.
Trainers cleared Kelly again, saying that he left the game with a hamstring cramp. While these haven't been serious injuries, and haven't been related to his blood clot issue that kept him on the IL, it's still a concern for the 34-year-old pitcher.
While Merrill and the D-backs would certainly prefer him to be able to stay healthy through an entire start, Kelly has still been an outstanding piece in Arizona's rotation. In a season with a great number of changes to the starting rotation, Kelly has performed consistently, delivering quality starts when the D-backs need them the most. Even in his 6 losses, he's only allowed more than 4 runs twice.
With the national spotlight on the Cy Young frontrunners, and the local eye on Zac Gallen, let's give The Mainstay a little love. He deserves it.