ARLINGTON, Texas — The changeup is a humble pitch, a complementary character by definition, by dint of its origins. It was never supposed to be the star, was never supposed to lead the way. Yet sometimes, the unexpected is exactly what a situation calls for.
Arizona Diamondbacks starter Merrill Kelly — who threw the pitch more than any other offering while stifling the Texas Rangers across seven innings of one-run ball to win World Series Game 2 on Saturday — makes for a fine changeup advocate.
Slow to arrive but mightily effective, the 35-year-old right-hander toiled in the minors and played four seasons in Korea, honing his craft before impressing scouts enough to return to the States and make his MLB debut in 2019 at age 30. Across five MLB seasons, he has continued to get better, logging his best full season this year, with a 3.29 ERA (32% better than average by park-adjusted ERA+), and now turning in a name-making World Series performance in his first postseason run. All as Arizona’s No. 2 starter, of course.
“I definitely had visions and images about me sitting on this podium, for sure,” Kelly said of his years in Korea. “The games, the big-league games over there for the time difference are pretty much in the morning, pretty much right when I'm waking up. So that was kind of my routine. I'd wake up, make my coffee and check on big-league baseball.
“It felt literally and figuratively miles away when I was over there. But that was always the mindset. That was always the focal point, was getting back to the big leagues.”
As Kelly will readily tell you, he doesn’t possess the qualities that tend to distinguish top-of-the-rotation hurlers in this era. He has a different way.
“I'm the type of guy that I kind of have to live on the edges,” Kelly said earlier this week after he won a crucial NLCS Game 6 that helped the Diamondbacks reach this World Series. “I don't have the 95-plus fastball and the super-spinny breaking ball, so I kind of make a living on making people make decisions, right?”
Lately, he has been pressing everyone in the ballpark for decisions.
In Game 2, Kelly mixed and matched pitches so well that the Rangers had to feel as if they were squaring off against a random number generator. He wielded six pitches — four-seam, sinker, cutter, changeup, slider, curveball — and threw five of them at least 10 times, without throwing any of them more than 22 times. The four he threw the most all sit between 90 and 94 mph, but they move in ways that could accurately be described as North (four-seam), South (changeup), East (cutter) and West (sinker). That made for a decision the Rangers had to make every single time he released the ball. Which one was it, exactly?
Appropriately, the pitch Kelly threw the most was the one you’d least expect: the changeup. He reeled off 22 of those, and that spelled trouble for Texas. It’s a pitch on which he allowed a .180 batting average and zero homers in the regular season before one finally left the yard at the hands of Kyle Schwarber in the NLCS. On this night, Kelly’s changeup was working to perfection. Only eight of the 22 landed in the strike zone, per Statcast, but the Rangers swung at 17, whiffing twice, fouling off seven and putting eight in play at a meek average exit velocity of 79.1 mph, with only one struck reasonably well.
Manager Torey Lovullo said postgame that the pitch looked especially sharp, with late drop that made it look almost like a slider from the vantage point of the dugout.
“The changeup was going down,” Lovullo said. “I couldn't tell whether it was a slider or changeup. He had it all working.”
In Game 2, Kelly forced the Rangers lineup, which has been this postseason’s most potent, to decide how to attack him on the fly, defying any sort of plan they might have crafted.
During the regular season, the four-seam fastball was Kelly’s primary pitch — with the cutter turning into his main secondary against right-handed batters and the change standing nearly equal to the fastball against lefties. Corey Seager, the terrifying Rangers shortstop who bats lefty, saw one four-seam fastball in three at-bats against Kelly, and it was a ball. Kelly got him to put a changeup and a sinker (which he threw to lefties less than 10% of the time this season) in play and then struck him out the third time he faced him with the first cutter Seager had seen all night.
“If I'm living on the edges, that forces them to make decisions, and it forces them to swing at pitches that maybe they wouldn't normally or maybe they shouldn't be swinging at,” Kelly explained during the NLCS. “And when I'm locating those pitches, especially with the ability to change directions and change speeds, I think that's probably when I'm at my best.”
For the second straight start in the season’s most crucial stretch, Kelly was at his best. For the second straight start, he forced not just Rangers hitters but also his own manager to make decisions.
After pulling Kelly earlier than the pitcher expected during that NLCS start — and getting a stunned, frosty handshake in return — Lovullo let his starter ride in Game 2, buoyed by a lead and incentivized by the knowledge that his bullpen worked hard in the Game 1 loss.
Kelly wound up throwing only 89 pitches, but with those seven innings — during which he struck out nine and walked none — he matched this postseason’s longest outing and became the first starter in the 2020s to go seven innings in a World Series game.
The third time through the Rangers order, a fraught turn that typically comes with danger for a pitcher, Kelly didn’t just navigate. He dominated. Facing the lineup’s top six hitters in the sixth and seventh innings, he struck out five of them, including Seager and star rookie Evan Carter — who went down flailing at two of the four curveballs Kelly threw him.
“That's what a really good starting pitcher is capable of doing,” Lovullo said. “This lineup is extremely potent and capable of turning it around in a hurry, but he made pitches.”
By the time the bottom of the eighth rolled around and Kelly took his leave, the Diamondbacks had built a six-run cushion against the underbelly of the Rangers bullpen. If the Diamondbacks go on to lift the Commissioner’s Trophy, circle Kelly’s late jaunt through the Rangers’ bats. By using his wide arsenal to defy the third-time-through-the-order penalty, Kelly allowed Lovullo to bring in relievers Andrew Saalfrank and Luis Frias to close things out instead of his preferred high-leverage arms (Ryan Thompson, Kevin Ginkel and Paul Sewald). In doing so, he might’ve saved them from some of the potential effects of another penalty just beginning to be quantified — the reliever-familiarity penalty in a long series.
Show good hitters anything too many times, after all, and it becomes muscle memory. Show them something different, and they have to adjust over and over. Sometimes, they simply can’t do it in time.
As Kelly and the Diamondbacks can attest as they return to Arizona with the series tied 1-1 and home-field advantage tilted their way, that’s one of the many virtues of the changeup.