Kelly grew up living the life of a ballplayer – vicariously, at least. His dad, Pat, spent the bulk of his professional catching career in the minor leagues, playing just one big-league game for the Blue Jays before becoming a minor-league manager in 1980.
As a kid, Kelly was a clubhouse rat. He familiarized himself with his father’s lifestyle early on, and it was a routine he was always eager to emulate. Fittingly, many years later, the son of a catcher became one of the top pitching prospects the Red Sox have to offer.
While there's plenty to struggle with when you’re trying to make it to The Show, getting accustomed to the lifestyle is not one of those things, at least for Kelly.
"He’s been around [this] his whole life, so it’s not new to him, which gives him more of a comfort zone," said Portland Sea Dogs manager Arnie Beyeler. "It helps him. It’s not a distraction. It’s not something else on his plate that he has to worry about."
The Red Sox selected Kelly in the first round of 2008 draft, and immediately, there was a choice to make: Football or baseball? The multifaceted athlete gave up a scholarship to quarterback the Tennessee Volunteers in order to sign with Boston, and after a handful of games spent in the Gulf Coast League, then with Greenville and Single-A Salem, Kelly found himself to be the youngest pitcher not only on the Sea Dogs but in all of the Eastern League.
But before that, though, there was another choice.
Athletes love a challenge, and perhaps because the rigorous grind of a ballplayer’s life was nothing new to Kelly, he sought out something else to make his journey a bit more exciting. He worked his way into the Red Sox organization as both a shortstop and a pitcher – but during the course of the 2009 offseason, it was time for him to commit to one or the other.
For him, the decision was an easy one: Pitching was the way to go.
"He’s all into it," Beyeler said. "He’s a pitcher now."
However, just like any other top prospect, Kelly is human. He has faced his fair share of struggles this season, going 3-4 in 19 starts with a 4.85 ERA. But this is a kid who has never been a full-time pitcher. Though the lifestyle may be nothing new to him, this particular grind is anything but something he’s used to.
But he’s getting better. Since a rough start on July 6 in which he gave up six runs in 5 1/3 innings, Kelly has lasted at least 5 2/3 innings in each of three outings, never allowing more than two runs. He still allowed 19 hits in those three starts, but his ERA is steadily dropping, and the improvements are not lost on Beyeler.
"He needs to pitch needs to get acclimated to a pitcher’s routine – that’s one big thing he’s taken to this year," Beyeler said. "The results are starting to show. He’s really gotten better in his last four or five starts, and he’s getting better and better every time out."
The struggles, Beyeler added, are just something any prospect will have to get used to as he ascends through the minor leagues. The competition gets heavier and heavier, and this game is all about finding a way to adjust to it.
"He’s a guy who has huge upside and needs to pitch. He hasn’t had a lot of professional mound time, and hasn’t faced hitters of this caliber," Beyeler said. "He’s going up the ladder, facing guys who are better hitters."
And as he ascends that ladder, the attention and scrutiny seem to intensify right along with the competition. This, though, is something Kelly is well prepared for. He knows the drill. He knows first-rounders walk around with bull's-eyes on their backs, but he simply shrugs off the labels. The draft is over, so everyone’s on a level playing field now.
"He understands he’ll take a lot of heat for being a first round guy and a big prospect," Beyeler said. "But you would never know this guy was a first-round pick, or a shortstop and a pitcher."
Perhaps if this whole experience was new to him — the schedule and the attention and the pressure and the expectations — Kelly would’ve turned out different. Maybe he would’ve gotten caught up in his own prestige, or maybe he would’ve gotten distracted.
Luckily, though, he had Pat to show him the ropes way back when so that he’s plenty comfortable with them now.
"He’s just a good kid, and that goes a long way," Beyeler said. "He’s been brought up right."