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T-Rat Talk: Antoine Kelly

Finally healthy, Kelly dominant with Wisconsin
May 31, 2022

On a Sunday afternoon in late May, Timber Rattlers pitcher Antoine Kelly took the mound to do something nearly unprecedented in the Timber Rattlers’ recent history. The moment, however, was a long time coming.

On a Sunday afternoon in late May, Timber Rattlers pitcher Antoine Kelly took the mound to do something nearly unprecedented in the Timber Rattlers’ recent history. The moment, however, was a long time coming.

Kelly was just 19 years old when the Brewers selected him with the 65th overall pick in the 2019 draft out of Wabash Valley College in Mount Carmel, Illinois. At the time, Kelly told the Chicago Tribune he had gained 20-25 pounds during his year at Wabash Valley, where he became the highest-drafted player in program history. He pitched 52 2/3 innings in his junior college career and recorded 112 strikeouts.

Kelly signed his first professional contract just days after being selected and after a successful debut season in the Arizona Summer League (since renamed the Arizona Complex League) the Brewers pushed him past advanced rookie ball and promoted him to Wisconsin for his final start of the season. He struggled in that outing, allowing six runs on five hits and four walks across just three innings, but the groundwork was in place for a likely return to Wisconsin for the 2020 season.

The 2020 season, however, did not come as anticipated. With the minor league season cancelled due to the pandemic, Kelly was instead invited to the Brewers’ alternate training site at Neuroscience Group Field. He was one of the youngest and least experienced players working out at the facility, giving him his first opportunity to work against and learn from players several steps ahead of him on the developmental ladder.

“It was cool being around the older guys, big leaguers I guess. Kind of taking from them their routines and stuff. That’s probably one of the benefits I got. And facing more experienced hitters was kind of a big thing for me too,” Kelly said.

While alternate site workouts weren’t open to the public, the people who watched Kelly’s work during that time came away impressed with his arsenal. Kelly throws left handed and features a fastball that reaches the upper 90’s in addition to a highly valued slider.

“I think last year, the light kind of went on for him at the alternate site where he realized how good he is and how good he can still become,” Brewers Vice President of Minor League Operations Tom Flanagan told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in March of 2021.

Unfortunately, near the end of the 2020 season Kelly experienced a significant setback. In November of that year he underwent surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome, a disorder that occurs when blood vessels or nerves in the space between the collarbone and first rib are compressed. Kelly didn’t pitch in his first regular season game in 2021 until July and struggled with command in his handful of outings across three levels that season, walking 19 batters in 19 1/3 innings.

“It was irritating,” Kelly said. “I knew how to recover and stuff, but it wasn’t happening.”

Kelly’s 2021 season wrapped up with another single outing with Wisconsin, but it was once again a frustrating finish to the year. He faced 12 batters and allowed eight runs in a loss to Cedar Rapids on September 9.

Finally healthy in 2022, Kelly’s patience and perseverance through a series of tough breaks is paying off. Over a stretch of five starts from April 23 to May 17 he worked 25 innings with a 1.44 ERA and held opposing batters to a .148 batting average, .276 on-base and .173 slugging. He struck out 28 batters in those 25 innings, and, in the final start in that stretch, set a new career high by pitching into the seventh inning in a start for the first time.

“He just continues to get better every start,” Timber Rattlers manager Joe Ayrault told the Rattler Radio podcast on May 18, following that outing. “Watching him three starts ago, I was getting goosebumps it seemed like every other inning. He’s feeling it right now. Good positive vibes, filling the zone, trusting his stuff, and I’m very impressed with him right now.”

For Kelly, however, the best was yet to come. On May 22 he faced South Bend for the second time in a six-game series and, despite having seen him earlier in the week, the Cubs had no answer for him. He struck out each of the first six batters he faced in that contest and eight of the first ten. Kelly pitched into the sixth inning in that contest and allowed just two opposing batters to hit the ball out of the infield. Thirteen of the 17 outs he recorded in that contest came via strikeout.

Since the Timber Rattlers became a Brewers affiliate in 2009 only three pitchers have struck out 13 or more batters in a game. One of those outings was aided by circumstance: In April of 2019 Aaron Ashby started a game in Beloit that was suspended due to rain and resumed at Neuroscience Group Field in June. Ashby returned to the mound when the game continued two months later and recorded 13 strikeouts across a complete game.

As such, since 2009 only two Rattlers pitchers have recorded 13 strikeouts in a game that began and ended on the same day: Kelly on May 22 and Jon Perrin, who struck out 14 in a game against Great Lakes on April 26, 2016. When asked about the outing, Kelly said the last time he had struck out 13 batters in a game was in high school.

“Antoine Kelly, there’s not much else to say other than just complete dominance,” Timber Rattlers pitching coach Will Schierholtz told the Rattler Radio Podcast that day. “He had another outing this season where he gave up a hit to the first batter he saw, then went five no-hit innings with ten punchouts and quite frankly, this start was better. I think it was probably the best start of his professional career, his command was on point from start to finish.”

Schierholtz noted that Kelly had his best professional outing that day despite missing a bit of velocity on his fastball: While Kelly had been clocking in between 96-99 mph most days this season, he was sitting 94-97 during this outing but was still able to keep one of the best teams in the Midwest League off balance all day despite the fact that they were seeing him for the second time in a week.

Kelly’s walk rate is also down noticeably in 2022: During his challenging 2021 season he walked nearly nine batters per nine innings, but he’s nearly cut that figure in half this season. He cited a decreased concern over free passes as one of the keys to his success this year.

“I’ve been trying not to worry about walking guys as much as I would have in the past. I’ve just been attacking,” Kelly said.

And, of course, Kelly’s health has also been a major factor in his success this season.

“Not being in pain, that’s the biggest, huge part of my season so far. Being able to recover from starts,” Kelly said when asked for his point of pride from 2022 so far.

Meanwhile, the experience Kelly has gained on and off the field during previous stints in the Fox Cities is paying dividends this season. In addition to the baseball lessons Kelly learned working against veteran players during his time at the alternate site in 2020, Kelly also gained a sense of comfort and familiarity with his surroundings.

“Before I was there for a week, I was never really comfortable with my environment. (In 2020) I was there basically all summer, so I kind of know what’s around. I’ve been there,” Kelly said.

As Kelly continues to demonstrate he’s healthy and effective, the prospect hype that has followed him for much of his career is gaining in intensity. MLB Pipeline currently has him as the #14 prospect in the Brewers organization, and he’s almost certain to rise up that list as the season continues. Kelly said he’s aware of the attention he’s receiving, but he’s not focused on it.

“I don’t really pay attention to all of it. It gets in the head. I just do my thing. I’ve seen it, but I’m not going to read it,” Kelly said.

Schierholtz, however, recently compared Kelly to one of the most highly-regarded pitching prospects of all time.

“I think probably the easiest big league player comp is Chris Sale. Looking at a tall lefty from a low slot with a dominant slider and a hard heater. Maybe a little bit of Garrett Crochet in there. Honestly, with my own two eyes I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s the most elite of the elite, and there’s not a lot of people on the planet who can do what he does,” Schierholtz said.

Given that skill set, it’s easy to understand why Kelly has a simple goal going forward.

“Just do me, throw baseballs, call it a day,” Kelly said.