Hours of bus rides and flights. Double headers. The “grind” that many ballplayers try to describe to most of us that we’ll never truly understand. Cynics will say it’s a child’s game but professional baseball is far from that today. The pure joy that the game of baseball provides to players and fans alike is something that brings people together, something we need more than ever. For Carson Kelly, that process, that “grind” is what he enjoys most about being a ballplayer.
“Enjoying the process and the grind of working your way up. Enjoying the bus rides and long flights, the travel, the long days, the double headers, everything. It takes a strong individual to get up there. Just falling in love with the process, that’s the best thing about being a baseball player.”
Baseball is in Kelly’s blood. His father was a catcher, and so was his grandfather. When the Cardinals approached him after the 2013 season about switching from third base to catcher, he was ready for the challenge.
“My dad was a catcher and so was my grandpa. Everybody in my family caught, and I used to catch a little bit in little league. I was familiar with the position so I kind of had to take a step back and realized this was a great opportunity and I ran with it. It’s really changed my career and I’m happy I made that decision.”
Kelly has every reason to be smiling. He’s not only considered the best catcher in the Cardinals farm system but in all of the minor leagues. Heading into 2017, he was rated as the 65th best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. Two years after transitioning to catcher, he won a minor league gold glove after the 2015 season. In 2016 he was a Texas League All-Star, played in the Futures Game during the MLB All-Star Break, and got promoted to AAA Memphis. Oh and don’t forget about getting called up to the Cardinals in September and his Cardinals Minor League Player of the Year award. So far so good on that position switch.
Defense at the catcher position has been Kelly’s strong suit but he acknowledged that for him to stay in the big leagues that his bat needed to play up to the MLB level. So what changed for him this season compared to previous years? Launch angles. Those darn sabermetrics sure seem to be working for Kelly this season. So far this season for Memphis, he has posted career highs in nearly every offensive category .301/.391/.500 (AVG/OBP/SLG). Doubles are carrying out of the park and turning into home runs. Last season in 32 games at Memphis, Kelly hit 10 doubles and zero homeruns. This season in 44 games, he’s hit 10 doubles and 7 HR. Adjusting a player’s launch angle is something that doesn’t work for everyone, but for Kelly it has clicked.
“It started during the offseason actually. I wanted to elevate the ball more because a slow guy like me, if I hit the ball on the ground then I’m out. So I wanted to hit more line drives and elevate the ball which has helped me with my doubles and some more home runs compared to previous years. It’s been a good adjustment so far and I’m still messing around with it a bit to see how it all works. I’m going to keep going with it.”
When I asked him about how much he looks into sabermetrics, Kelly didn’t shy away from them like some players do.
“Yeah, a little bit. The facility I work out of in Oregon in the offseason has a HitTrax machine that you can put on any field and it reads the launch angle, velocity, and all of those other little details. You have to figure out what works best for you and which approach maximizes distance, velocity, and all of the other stuff. I kinda just look at it for driving the baseball and seeing where I’m at.”
Despite his defensive prowess at catcher and increased power at the plate, some fans throughout Cardinals Nation believe he should be getting reps at a different position since Yadier Molina’s contract was extended just prior to the start of the season. Is this a real possibility though or just noise from the outer edges of the fan base?
“No, I’ve just been catching and I’m going to continue to learn at that position. Whatever opportunity I get I’m going to do the best of it.”
But does he even have an infielders’ glove anymore?
“I do. I like to take ground balls and us catchers take ground balls because it helps us with soft hands and you never know when a freak injury may happen and force you to play out of position to help the team.”
Carson Kelly is the type of player that is going to do whatever it takes to help his team win a ballgame. If that means in an emergency situation playing out of position to help the team, then he’s more than capable of doing so. That being said, his focus is on catching and soaking up as much as possible so that he’s ready for that next opportunity. It should be no surprise who his favorite player was growing up.
“That’s a good question. Derek Jeter, you can’t go wrong with him. Just the way he goes about his business on and off the field, he’s a legend.”
And speaking of off the field, being a minor league ballplayer isn’t busy enough for him. Between putting in extra time watching film and in the batting cage, Kelly somehow still finds time to fit in coursework to finish up his college degree during the season. He’s also a big fan of binge watching tv shows which helps break up that “grind” of being a ballplayer. His favorite off the field activity?
“Homework. Just kidding. Off the field I like to watch TV shows, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, all of that kind of stuff. They’re all starting new seasons so I’m trying to get caught up and I’m excited. I try to crush a few episodes here and there while we’re on the bus.”
My biggest takeaway after getting to spend some time with Carson Kelly was that he is a genuinely humble person. He’s very appreciative of the opportunity to play the game of baseball for a living and is truly “falling in love with the process”.
When the Cardinals come calling, Kelly will be ready. He’s ready to play every day in front of the best fans in baseball and can’t wait to get back to his favorite ballpark to play in.
“Getting to go out there and play in front of the Cardinals fans, coming up through the organization and always talking about one day playing at Busch. You always hear that the two best times to play there are Opening Day and the playoffs, so hopefully one day I will get to be part of them.”
Cardinals Nation hopes that day is soon. Not only the day that Kelly gets back to Busch Stadium, but the day the Cardinals get back to playing in October too.