As of the 21st (Korean time), Merrill Kelly메이저놀이터 (35, Arizona Diamondbacks) is tied for first place in the National League with the most wins in the Major League Baseball (MLB). He’s already cruising toward his first big league individual title, posting 9 wins (3 losses) and a 2.90 earned run average. He also has good grades in detail. His on-base allowed per inning (WHIP) is 1.07, which is third in the league, and the hit rate is 0.194, which is second in the league. It booked his best season in the five years since his MLB debut.
Kelly is a familiar player to baseball fans in the KBO League. He played for SK Wyverns (now SSG Landers) for 4 years from 2015. He came to Korea without ever stepping on the big league stage, but after returning to the United States, he rose to become a top MLB pitcher. He seems to be establishing himself as a representative runner of the KBO league’s ‘reverse export myth’.
Kelly is from Arizona, USA. He played baseball from a young age, only dreaming of hitting the big league mound. It is rumored that he did not even know that there was a professional baseball league in Korea until he received an offer from SK. He was selected by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 8th round of the 2010 MLB draft and stood on the starting line of that dream. However, five years after his arrival, he did not receive a big league call. That was despite posting an earned run average of 2 at Triple-A, the top level of the minor leagues, in 2014. Exhausted physically and mentally, Kelly eventually chose to go to Korea at the young age of 26.
Even in Korea, he did not attract attention at first. He was an unknown pitcher with no MLB appearance record at all, and his contract total was only $350,000. However, it soon proved to be the best choice for both SK and Kelly. Kelly played a total of 119 games for four years from 2015, recording a career record of 48 wins and 32 losses with an ERA of 3.86. He successfully settled in the league with 11 wins in 2015, and was responsible for a whopping 200 and 1/3 innings in 2016. In 2017, he played the role of an ace instead of Kim Gwang-hyun, who was missing due to elbow surgery. In 2018, he joined forces with Kim Gwang-hyun, who returned, and led SK to win the Korean Series.
Having achieved her goal of winning, Kelly decided to make a second fresh start. Instead of settling in Korea, where her comfortable life is guaranteed, she decided to re-challenge her dream of becoming a big leaguer. SK also respected Kelly’s wishes and released her hold. Using his performance in Korea as a springboard, Kelly signed a 2 + 2 year (guaranteed amount of $ 6 million) contract with his hometown team, Arizona.
On April 2, 2019, 31-year-old Kelly made his MLB debut against the San Diego Padres. The American press also paid attention to Kelly’s drama, which came true after twists and turns. “It’s hard for anyone to imagine how much this day, which is no different to anyone else, means to Kelly, and how far he has come to make it through,” Yahoo Sports wrote. Kelly finished his debut season with 13 wins after reporting his first win with 5 hits (1 home run) and 3 runs in 6 innings in his first appearance. He ended the season in 5 games in 2020 due to an unexpected injury, but returned to the big leagues in 2021 and became Arizona’s first starter. Arizona retained Kelly by exercising the club option every year even after the two-year guaranteed contract expired.
Kelly took it one step further last season. He pitched 200 and 1/3 innings in 33 games, going 13-8 with a 3.37 earned run average. As a result, he signed again with Arizona for 2+1 years and $18 million ($7 million with club option for 2025 season). He has exactly tripled his guaranteed amount in 4 years. In March, he was selected to the U.S. National Baseball Team to compete in the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Kelly is the first foreign player from the KBO League to represent the U.S. national team. He also said, “This is the real American dream”
This season is even more dazzling. Admiration pours out even in the local area for Kelly’s ‘reverse running’, which gets stronger as she gets older. The weakness of speed (average speed of 148km per hour), which is the lowest among MLB pitchers, is sufficiently offset by the pitch and control. When he became the winning pitcher with 10 strikeouts against the Boston Red Sox on May 29, he was even compared to Greg Maddux, the greatest control pitcher of all time. Boston manager Alex Cora said, “Kelly showed what ‘pitching’ is. One of the best pitchers.”
Kelly came to Korea 9 years ago alone and made a new turning point. His hard work and challenging spirit led him to become one of the top MLB pitchers. Now, Kelly is another pride of the KBO League.