Rays reliever Trevor Kelley is hoping change does him well

A different grip on the slider and the addition of a two-seam fastball have opened up more of the strike zone for the side-armer.
Rays pitcher Trevor Kelley
Rays pitcher Trevor Kelley [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published March 16, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — The issue has been in front of Trevor Kelley for years, trying to figure out why his impressive success at Triple-A for three different organizations couldn’t transfer to the big leagues.

But what if the answer was within his grasp the whole time?

Early in spring training, Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder suggested a couple of slight adjustments that would expand Kelley’s ability to pitch down in the zone: changing how he held his slider to make it break more and adding a two-seam sinking fastball to his repertoire.

“The two grips we’re working on, I’ve never even considered because I just didn’t see it with my own eyes,” Kelley said. “That’s the crazy thing about it. It’s been here the entire time. And Snyder has just been the one to say ‘Try this, trust this.’ Maybe they’ve done it in the past with me with other teams, but not the way that Snyder has. I credit him quite a bit.”

Because Kelley, 30, throws sidearm, most of his pitches have been in the upper half of the strike zone, which proved to not be effective against more advanced hitters.

Consider that in 136 games over parts of four seasons at Triple-A with Boston, Atlanta and Milwaukee, Kelley has posted a 1.81 ERA over 164 1/3 innings, allowing a .217 batting average, striking out 171 and walking 58.

But in 32 big-league games over parts of three seasons with the Red Sox, Phillies and Brewers, Kelley has posted a 7.13 ERA over 35 1/3 innings, allowing a .290 batting average, striking out 34 and walking 15.

“It’s crazy — Triple-A, it’s been more or less easy,” Kelley said. “To go up to the big leagues, it is a pretty big step. But the only difference was I was just key-holing myself into the top of the zone. And if I didn’t get those calls, well, here comes a fastball, or here comes something over the plate, because I have to go at you.”

Snyder said Kelley was open to the changes, noting jokingly that they had the Tar Heel bond of both pitching collegiately at North Carolina, and a clear mutual interest in improvement.

First Snyder had Kelley experiment with the grips. Then to throw in their makeshift pitching lab at Disney, where they had TV screens so he could see data on the movement and feel good about it. Then he experimented with location.

“He was able to see how much different it was, and that visual can be pretty powerful,” Snyder said. “He did it again, he did it again and did it again, and he’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re just a different guy. Just like that.’ I want it to be that powerful. I want you to leave here feeling like, ‘My goodness, my stars have potentially changed.’ And that’s our goal with all these guys.

“Is that adaptation as easy for others as it is for him? Not necessarily. But you’re always trying to be curious about ways to improve these guys and the science has definitely helped us in that. It’s a pretty good case.”

When Kelley was designated for assignment in January by the Brewers, the latest in a list of releases, DFAs and waiver claims, he chose, among numerous options, to sign a minor-league deal with the Rays, intrigued by “the secret sauce” of how they made so many other pitchers better.

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His goal is to win a bullpen job, and though he was added to the 40-man roster Wednesday (after a February attempt was disallowed by Major League Baseball), he and the team said it doesn’t change the battle for an opening day roster spot.

“What I’ve learned so far in camp, it’s been crazy,” Kelley said. “I’m really excited for this year.”

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