Zack Kelly Joins ‘From Phenom To The Farm:’ Episode 73

Image credit: Mike Janes/Four Seam Images

There are long shots to make it to the big leagues, and then there’s Zack Kelly. Even calling Kelly a “longshot” might be an understatement.


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Kelly would’ve been an anomaly enough had he just thrown one inning in professional baseball. He began his career at Division 2 Concord University, a school most baseball fans haven’t heard of, and then transferred to Division 2 Newberry College—another school most baseball fans haven’t heard of. At both stops, Kelly turned in solid results and lit up the radar gun enough to garner interest on the mound from professional teams.

“You get the questionnaires, and every questionnaire is pretty much the exact same questions to a T,” said Kelly. “Every single one of them says, ‘What will you sign for?’ I’m a Division 2 senior; what do you want me to put, a million dollars? On every single one, I put ‘Anything.’”

Kelly showed enough during his senior season at Newberry to elicit the possibility of being selected in the 2017 MLB Draft. A few calls came throughout the draft, but forty rounds came and went with no selection. Post-draft, Kelly got on the phone with a scout from the A’s.

“He called me and said, ‘Alright, here’s the deal, I pushed for you—I’ll get you a free agent deal for $500; you have to be out here in three days,’” said Kelly. “(I said) thank you, I’m pumped; this is all I’ve ever wanted, you just let me know when I need to leave my house, and I’ll be there.”

How long did that $500 last?

“It lasted me about three hours,” said Kelly. After paying for rent and a “2 For $20” from a Scottsdale Applebees, Kelly had no money, but did have a job with the A’s.

At least, he did until being released following the end of spring training in 2018. The righthander licked his wounds and headed to an independent league tryout but received a call from the Angels upon arrival. Kelly spent the 2018 season with the organization, throwing well over three levels, but serving more as A-ball organizational depth—when the Halos needed an arm to toss innings in short-season, Low-A, or High-A, or extended spring training, Kelly was that guy.

During off-seasons both Kelly and his wife worked odd jobs to make ends meet while the latter finished her nursing degree. Kelly gave pitching lessons and cut costs elsewhere to afford a membership at a gym that housed other professional baseball players, such as longtime big leaguer Jordan Lyles, which allowed him to soak in what it took mentally and physically to progress in professional baseball.

Kelly began 2019 again as rotation depth, this time at Double-A Mobile, initially spending his time split between piggybacking with another starting pitcher or being placed on the “phantom” injured list—which happens when an organization needs to open a roster spot, and procedurally place a player on the injured list without an actual injury.

“I would piggyback, and go on the phantom, piggyback, and go on the phantom,” said Kelly. “I probably did that for the first half of the season (…) I didn’t pitch so much that when our team card set came out, I didn’t get one, it was like they didn’t have any pictures of me.”

Slowly but surely, Kelly began pitching his way from depth to relevancy, eventually earning his own start day. With the stability that came with a regular work schedule, he was finally able to develop a routine and start developing his craft on the mound.

Unfortunately for Kelly, his stability was short-lived. He suffered an elbow injury during the 2019 off-season, which worsened upon arrival at spring training. After all players were sent home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Kelly continued to rehab without seeing improvement. While first ticketed for UCL reconstruction, Kelly opted to follow the advice of a second opinion, choosing to have his UCL repaired instead of replaced, which he relayed to the Angels.

“I told them I wanted to get surgery—the next day, I got released,” said Kelly.

Despite leading to another release, the repair worked for Kelly—he was throwing off a mound by the winter of 2020 and caught on with Boston for the 2021 season. He rewarded the Red Sox with the best season of his career, carrying a 2.18 ERA and topping out at Triple-A

In 2022, he did one better, breaking into the Red Sox bullpen and posting a 3.95 over his first 13.2 big league innings, finishing the season with Boston. Heading into his age-28 season, Kelly has high hopes for this new phase of his career but also appreciates how far he’s come since the day he signed for $500.

“I had already viewed my career as a success—being an undrafted free agent; there’s zero expectations. Even if you get out of Arizona, out of Florida, you did what you were supposed to, (…) every year I felt like I was playing with house money,” said Kelly. “I understood that I was never going to be on a prospect list, I understood that I was never going to get the same opportunities that other guys were going to get, but I didn’t use that to feel sorry for myself; I used it as motivation. I feel like a lot of times you get into pro ball, and guys would start to view it as a job, and it is. But for me, having zero expectations from anybody, other than myself, to this day I’m still able to play the same game, with the same joy and excitement as when I was 15 years old.”

On the latest episode of ‘From Phenom to the Farm,’ current Red Sox righthander Zack Kelly joins to walk through his career from undrafted free agent to big leaguer.

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