By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, May 1 (Yonhap) -- As he labors through an uncharacteristically uneven stretch in the early part of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) season, LG Twins starter Casey Kelly has been able to stay even-keeled.
Having a father who has seen it all and done it all over five decades in professional baseball -- as player, coach and manager -- has helped Kelly in that regard.
"He's my best coach. He knows me the best," Kelly said Thursday of his father, Pat Kelly, former major league catcher and currently manager of the Louisville Bats, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
"He watches every game and we go over every game. We talk about hitters and pitch sequences," the junior Kelly continued during a pregame chat with Yonhap News Agency at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul, where Twins hosted the SSG Landers. "We're always talking to each other and he really gets me through tough times like this. He's the one that continues to tell me that everything's going to be okay, just continue to do your work, and good things are going to happen."
In some cases, an ex-player father may choose not to talk shop with a son also playing the sport, so as to keep the junior's mind off baseball during stressful times. That's not the case for the Kelly clan.
"I think we talk about baseball a lot, almost too much. My wife gets a little upset because sometimes my dad and I are just talking about baseball all the time," Casey said with a smile. "But that keeps our relationship close. And with how many years he's been in baseball and how much stuff that he's seen, going through hard times or good times, he definitely keeps me levelheaded."
Kelly has needed every bit of his father's calming influence during some turbulent times so far this season.
Kelly arrived in the KBO in 2019, and few starters have been as consistently good as the American right-hander over his first four years. In the 2019-2022 window, Kelly led all qualified KBO starters with 58 wins, ranked second with a 2.89 ERA and 555 strikeouts, and third with 697 innings pitched.
Last year, he established his KBO career-best with a 2.54 ERA and 153 strikeouts, and tied for the league-lead with 16 wins, also his personal best.
It has been a different story so far in 2023, though. He has a 5.66 ERA over his first six starts, covering 35 innings. He has already allowed 28 runs, more than half the 50 he surrendered in 166 1/3 innings last year. Opponents have knocked him around to the tune of 40 hits.
However, given his track record of success, Kelly said he is better equipped to handle stress and anxiety that could gnaw at new foreign players, who usually face heightened expectations and are kept on a short leash.
"If it was my first season, I think I'd be a little bit more worried because I know the teams change guys out a lot," he said. "This being my fifth year, I know it's going to change and when the summer hits, that's usually when I hit my stride.
"And I think that just being a more veteran in this league has helped me know I can get these guys out," Kelly continued. "I've faced these teams many times over the years. So it's just more or less going out there and executing and having fun."
Kelly's poise also comes from the belief -- or even knowledge -- that, over the course of a 144-game season here, a string of some bad luck will eventually end.
"Obviously, I want to pitch well every time out," Kelly said. "I've had success in the past. I've also had some tough times in the past to start the season. So I want to make sure that I'm working hard every day. I know that if I continue to do my routine and to work hard and that I'm healthy, then everything's going to turn out good."
As ugly as some of Kelly's numbers have been, some underlying statistics suggest he has been a tad unlucky, too.
For instance, his fielding independence pitching (FIP) comes to 4.15, 1.51 points lower than his ERA. FIP is an ERA-like metric that measures a pitcher's performance based on elements he can control -- strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs. A FIP that's notably lower than ERA generally means the pitcher has been unlucky, typically due to weak grounders that dribble through holes or flyballs that drop in no-man's land between fielders for a hit.
He is also allowing a .316 batting average on balls in play, the eighth-highest mark in the league that should regress as the season progresses.
"I think as baseball goes on, sometimes you have bad luck, and at some point in time, it turns around so those balls will start to get hit at people," Kelly said. "I personally think that we have the best defense in the KBO. They're playing so well behind me. Right now, balls are just finding holes. It's still early in the season."
Kelly attributed his early season woes to his inability to put away hitters at two strikes.
"That's something that I've been working on," Kelly said. "Also, just trying to get all my pitches to feel comfortable throwing for strikes. Right now, I feel good with three of them and there's a fourth one that I'm trying to get going. Once all four of them get going, then I think that I'll have a lot of success."
That fourth pitch is the slider.
"It's been something that has been good in the past," Kelly said, "For whatever reason, (I am) not throwing it for strikes and that's just what I want to do. I throw all my pitches for strikes and when I'm not, that's when I have trouble."
On a more positive note, Kelly said he's pleased with the way he's been throwing his changeup this season. According to the KBO statistics site Statiz, Kelly is throwing his changeup at a career-high rate of 14.7 percent of the time, up from 12.2 percent a season ago.
"The changeup last year was a really good pitch for me, especially against left-handed hitters. This year, I've started throwing it to right-handed hitters also," he said. "I feel more comfortable with the pitch and obviously, it makes my fastball play a little bit better."
As much as hitters have figured him out over the past four years, Kelly said having familiarity with hitters is an advantage he can exploit.
"That's the fun part about it. (The hitters) know what I have. I know what they have," Kelly said. "And it's just going out there and competing at that point."