A former KBO leaguer is better than the world’s best? Now a reality, ‘reverse export myth’ is created

When SK (now SSG) signed an unknown player named Merrill Kelly (35, Arizona) in 2015, no one expected him to become one of the top starting pitchers in the major leagues.

He hadn’t played a single game in the majors and hadn’t gotten much attention in the KBO. He just had a lot of basic potential, and he was still 메이저놀이터 young enough to have a lot of upside. However, over the course of four seasons in the KBO, Kelly gradually developed into a major league pitcher.

In four years in the KBO, Kelly compiled a 48-32 record with a 3.86 ERA in 119 games. He was on the radar of Arizona, which was looking for a low-cost, high-efficiency fifth starter, and signed a 2+2 year deal ahead of the 2019 season to make his belated major league debut.

The odd thing is that Kelly’s numbers have continued to improve in the majors. He’s in his mid-30s, which is when you’d expect him to break down, but instead, he’s gotten better as he’s gotten older, pitching with more command. He hasn’t lost any strength. He doesn’t get sick as often. It’s a really unusual case.

Kelly posted a 4.42 ERA in 32 games in 2019. Many considered this a success considering the money he was being paid. He followed that up with a 4.44 ERA in 2021 and a 3.37 ERA in 2022, and this year he’s 7-3 with a 2.80 ERA in 70⅔ innings over his first 12 games. It’s great to see a pitcher in his 30s making his major league debut and seeing his metrics get better every year. This year, Kelly is striking out 9.8 batters per nine innings, his best mark since his debut.

He’s often been underrated because he’s been a little-known pitcher, but this year, as he’s started to lead the National League in wins, he’s been thrust into the national spotlight. On July 7, Major League Baseball Network panelist Dan Plesak ranked him No. 20 on his list of the best starting pitchers in the majors.

Plesak updates the rankings periodically and explains why players rise and fall on his program on Major League Baseball Network. Since it’s an updated list, it’s inevitable that recent performance will have a big impact on the rankings, aside from previous experience and name recognition. In that regard, Kelly’s entry into the top 20 seems like a no-brainer.

At No. 19 is Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers), who leads the National League in wins, and at No. 22 is Max Scherzer (New York Mets), a three-time Cy Young Award winner.

While Scherzer has had a more illustrious career than Kelly, it’s hard to argue that he’s better than Kelly based on his performance this season. Scherzer is 5-2 with a 3.21 ERA in nine games this season. He didn’t start the season at 100% health, and he was suspended midway through the season for a foreign substance controversy, so his numbers are low.

The players above Kelly are, for good reason, the best starters in the majors this season. Shane McClanahan (Tampa Bay), Frazier Valdez (Houston), Gerrit Cole (New York Yankees), Sonny Gray (Minnesota), and Nathan Eovaldi (Texas) are all at the top of their game this season.

Toronto ace Kevin Gausman was eighth, Arizona ace Zack Greinke was 11th, and two-hitting Shohei Ohtani was 12th. Ohtani started the season higher than this, but his recent struggles have pushed him outside the top 10.

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