For Kevin Kelleher, the truth is simple: ‘I was born to throw round things’

Kevin Kelleher working off the mound at Driveline Baseball.
Kevin Kelleher working off the mound at Driveline Baseball.

“Baseball is about persistence,” Kevin Kelleher told me.

He would know. His journey back into a Major League Baseball organization came only at the end of a road marked with heartache, confusion and disappointment. Baseball isn’t for the faint of heart. Pitching especially.

Kelleher, perhaps unlike some of his peers, didn’t grow up dreaming of standing on the mound. Just the opposite; he wanted to be a slugger — in the mold of, say, Alex Rodriguez — mashing home runs. That wasn’t to be, though, and as many a young man learns, the big leagues weren’t in the cards.

Or were they?

Kelleher eventually realized that while he might not be a big league hitter, he did have something to share: the dude could throw hard. Harder than most, in fact, and once he got his first taste of the intricacies of the act — the mechanics, the pitches, the timing — he fell head over heels in love with it.

“It made me love baseball all over again,” he said.

‘I felt lost’

Kelleher’s velocity translated to a lot of strikeouts while pitching for the University of New Orleans. In his last season before being drafted, he struck out 71 hitters in 54 innings, allowing 23 walks and 57 hits. A lot of baserunners, yes — but only one home run — for a 3.98 ERA. Those strikeouts and that velocity (up to 99 MPH) got him the look. To this point in his pitching life, he’d never been better.

The culmination of all that work came June 2015 when the Boston Red Sox selected him in the 12th round. He was throwing hard –upper-to-mid 90s– and felt strong. Felt like the future was bright.

And then the wheels came off.

He signed his deal with the Boston Red Sox on June 20, 2015. His run at New Orleans and in pre-draft workouts had bred plenty of confidence.

“I was throwing the ball hard and feeling really, really good,” he said. “I felt strong and my arm felt good. Then I got drafted and you always go through these medical reports — do your MRIs and scans — and they said I had some inflammation in my shoulder.”

The team decided to sit Kelleher for a month, keeping him off the mound and the ball out of his hand. Suddenly, that confidence begins to wane just a bit.

And then it was gone. When he was cleared to throw again, things had changed.

“For some reason, I just developed the yips,” Kelleher said.

Here’s where only the baseball lifers understand. A 2013 story on MLB.com describes the condition perfectly:

For reasons unknown, players can encounter a mental hurdle that flat-out won’t permit them to complete one of the game’s mundane on-field tasks. Infielders suddenly can’t find the first baseman’s glove on routine throws. Catchers can’t execute the simple task of returning the ball to the pitcher.

It’s not a physical condition, as the various doctors quoted in Zach Meisel’s story will attest. That makes it even harder to handle.  Was it a concern about re-injury? Pressure of the moment? The Red Sox initially thought Kelleher’s issues were mechanical, but like so many other athletes with similar struggles, he knew different.

Even as a young pitcher, Kelleher had an instinctive understanding of how his mechanics should work. Standing 6’3″ and built to fill the frame, he knew that size had to be channeled properly, like a train rolling downhill.

“I’m a big guy. I need to move fast and efficiently or it doesn’t work,” Kelleher said. “I’ve always had a pretty good idea of how I wanted to move.”

The team sent him to work with sports psychologists. It didn’t help. Kelleher credits the team for their effort, but ultimately it wasn’t effective; he simply could not throw strikes.

“I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn,” Kelleher said.

Just over a year after being signed, he was released. He called it a relief.

‘I was born to throw round things’

Kelleher returned to familiar places to find himself after being released, in particular, the Florida Baseball Ranch. He found something interesting happened; he could play catch without any issue. The yips faded into memory just as quickly as they had appeared.

Kelleher is quick to place absolutely no blame on the Red Sox, who spent time and cash trying to straighten out the young reliever. Either way, right or wrong, Kelleher slowly began to feel like himself again.

But not all the way.

Eventually, he popped up in Independent ball, pitching for the Sussex County Miners of the CanAm league and the California City Whiptails of the Pecos league in 2017. Neither experience was anywhere near as frustrating as the summer before, and even despite velocity approaching normal and strikeout totals more reminiscent of his last season in college (20 strikeouts in about 13 innings), he still wasn’t himself.

Kelleher returned to both the CanAm league (for the Salina Stockade) and the Pecos league (for the High Desert Yardbirds) in 2018 and again had no problem striking people out. But the results weren’t great and the opportunities were limited.

In August, for the first time, he considered retirement.

“I was really questioning my career,” Kelleher said.

Something had to give. Kelleher had little interest in another summer fidgeting through indy ball. He had lucrative options for a career outside baseball waiting for him the moment he sat his glove aside. But he decided to hang on and keep working, driven in part by this intuitive idea that he was supposed to be here, doing this. There was something about the ball, the mitt and the mound.

That’s when he called Driveline.

‘What am I getting myself into?’

Driveline Baseball has built quite a reputation in baseball circles. They sell themselves as a data-driven baseball development program. They work with athletes of all levels, but their most famous client might be Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, who has worked with Driveline multiple times on pitch design.

Kevin Kelleher had never been to Seattle. As he stepped off the plane and got the first glimpse of his new home for a few weeks, the reality of the gamble set in. This was it. This was the last chance. Could he improve enough to get another chance with a Major League organization?

Or was it time to walk away?

“I was thinking, man, ‘what have I gotten myself into’?” Kelleher said. “It was a leap of faith.”

Kelleher went through the initial program that any trainee does at Driveline, where the team assesses how the athlete moves and how best to tweak that. Pitching is a dynamic and kinetic process, constantly being refined and tweaked.

“Kevin was a guy who already threw hard, but had a few inefficiencies in his movements,” said Rob Hill, a throwing trainer at Driveline, via email. His aggressiveness was causing him trouble, however, in that he tended to “fly open” — in other words, his front shoulder was moving too fast, causing command issues and doing his arm no favors.

“By helping him work out where he needed to apply intent in his delivery we were able to get to a place where these inefficiencies were happening significantly less often,” Hill said.

Beyond refining the command, the Driveline team sought to address two other main challenges, namely adding depth to his slider and fixing his diet. Hill focused on the latter, mainly to help thin out the tall reliever to keep his mechanics fluid. Within a few weeks, the young pitcher had lost twenty pounds.

Eric Jagers — newly hired by the Philadelphia Phillies — took on the slider, the only offspeed pitch that Kelleher, prone to attacking relentlessly with the fastball, had to offer.

Eric Jagers, recently hired by the Philadelphia Phillies, worked on the slider. The pitch flashed potential but lacked the movement Kelleher needed to help off-set the fastball, his bread and butter.

“He presented an innate ability to spin the ball (regularly exceeding 3,000 RPMs) but produced little to no glove side movement and the pitch lacked true depth,” Jagers said in an email. In essence, the pitch fared more like a cutter; not necessarily a bad thing, but given Kelleher’s repertoire it wasn’t as a good fit.

So how does this happen? How does a young pitcher take something with potential — like his cutter/slider, with all that wonderful spin — and mold it into the pitch he needs? Well, it’s not easy. You need data — often provided by machines like Trackman and Rapsodo, which provide metrics like spin rate, plus vertical and horizontal depth information. You need lots of reps all thrown in front of a high-speed camera, giving you plenty of video to painstakingly study, frame-by-frame, to find and remove as many inefficiencies as you can.

And then comes the grip. Not every pitcher is comfortable holding a breaking ball the same way — you can adjust the thumb under the ball, apply pressure in different ways with the index and middle fingers, etc. Sometimes happy accidents lead young pitchers to something new — consider the famous story of Mariano Rivera discovering his cutter while playing long toss.

Eventually, Jagers and Kelleher found what worked for the right hander, which led to the next big test; can you locate it? It does a pitcher no good to throw a nasty, sharp slider without any command.

“Previously, he was unaware [of his spin rates] so it was great to make him fully aware of his strengths and weaknesses and how we could better leverage those to attack hitters,” Jagers said.

“I need to attack guys up in the strike zone,” Kelleher said. The velocity and spin on his fastball allows him to work above the belt, which then opens up plenty of real estate around the knees for the breaking pitch. It’s Pitching 101, but it works.

Once Kelleher passed enough tests — he could mix in the pitch effectively, locate it throughout the zone and maintain his delivery throwing it — it was time to face a real batter. The ultimate test. Even in a baseball world so infused with data, the game still comes down to a man with a ball against a man with a bat.

But a pitcher armed with information is dangerous.

He proved to be in his first experience against live batters. The slider could be sequenced with the fastball — ever the focus — and hitters struggled not only to identify it but even make contact at all. That was a major victory, a sizable hurdle cleared, but there was more to do.

The goal, after all, wasn’t simply to get better. The goal was to get back into a big league organization. That opportunity came in the form of a Pro Day at Driveline, where scouts from various teams could see the talent and decide who to pursue.

As it arrived, Kelleher said he wasn’t nervous.

“It was basically like this for me; it’s time to go get what you want out of life,” he said. “It’s either gonna happen or it’s not.”

How did it go?

“I struck out basically everyone I faced,” Kelleher said.

“I made a $15,000 bet on myself and I won”

He had the fastball, knew its value and power.

He had the slider, knew its depth and deception.

He had his fitness, healthier and more mobile.

What he didn’t have was an offer. After such a dominant showing in perhaps the most pressure-packed opportunity of his career, it was perplexing.

Then he realized.

“So, I got a new cell phone number right around the time of the Pro Day,” Kelleher said. “And I just forgot to have the coaches distribute it to the teams.”

It didn’t take long for that new phone to ring. It was the Los Angeles Angels, offering a 3-year deal and the chance for Kelleher to keep training just as he had for three months in the Pacific Northwest.

He reported to Spring Training on Feb. 24, a completely different pitcher and athlete than he was back in 2015. Smarter. Leaner.

The famed poet Robert Frost once said “Poets are like baseball pitchers. Both have their moments. The intervals are the tough things.”

For Kevin Kelleher, his hope is that one interval has come to an end.

***

Adkins on Sports will be following Kevin Kelleher throughout the 2019 season, reporting on how he’s faring in the Los Angeles Angels organization. Currently, he’s nursing a mild back injury and expects to begin throwing again shortly.

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