The latest C’s Chat is with 2022 Vancouver Canadians pitcher Justin Kelly.
The Salt Lake City, Utah native signed a free-agent deal with the Toronto Blue Jays on July 21, 2021. A shortstop and pitcher at Copper Hills High School in the Salt Lake City area, Kelly punctuated his high school career with a 2017 season that saw record an earned run average of 1.67 with 42 strikeouts in 37-2/3 innings and batted .304 with four home runs. He was named a regional All-Star and was an honourable All-State mention.
Kelly chose to remain in his home state by joining the University of Utah. He began his collegiate career as a reliever and made 12 appearances in which he won his lone decision, collected a save and struck out 23 batters in 24-1/3 innings. The year was cut short when he had to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Though he missed the 2019 season with the Utes, Kelly did pitch competitively later that year as he joined the Portland Pickles of the West Coast League. He tossed 18-2/3 innings with a strikeout-walk total of 23-9 and picking up a win relief to go with a 3.86 ERA.
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound hurler rejoined the Utes in 2020 and was named their Friday night start. He compiled a 2.66 ERA over his first four starts before COVID cancelled the season. Kelly did manage to get in some game action as he went to the St. Cloud Rox of the Northwoods League for another year of summer college ball. He gave up just one run over 22-1/3 innings, resulting in a minuscule 0.41 ERA.
The 2021 season did not go nearly as smoothly for Kelly and the Utes as he came out on the losing end of 10 of his 11 decisions. His lone win came against Washington thanks to seven solid innings in which he struck out seven and allowed two earned runs. Kelly continued to hold his composure during an interesting postgame interview on the Pac-12 Network.
Kelly made one more stop on the summer college ball circuit as he headed to Illinois to join the Quincy Gems of the Prospect League. He was a bullpen gem as he struck out 27 batters in 21 innings, won three games and saved four others.
That helped land Kelly a professional contract with the Blue Jays. He was assigned to Dunedin and made his professional debut in Fort Myers on August 4 in which he struck out the very first batter he faced. His next appearance was a scoreless frame against the Mighty Mussels on August 8, where he struck out a pair of batters. Adjusting to pro ball had its challenges for Kelly but he finished up on a good note with three shutout innings of one-hit ball and three strikeouts against Clearwater on September 18.
Dunedin was the starting point for Kelly in 2022. He enjoyed a good month of April in which he put up an ERA of 3.18, highlighted by three shutout innings and five strikeouts in Tampa Bay on April 14. Kelly matched his career-high in strikeouts by striking out the last five batters he faced over two perfect frames against Lakeland on June 11 to earn his second save of the year. His numbers with the D-Jays were not the best at 0-4 with a 5.40 ERA but the won-loss record saw a huge turnaround after he was promoted to Vancouver on June 17.
Kelly got his first professional win in his C’s debut with three innings of one-run ball against the Eugene Emeralds on June 19. He was credited with another victory after 3-1/3 innings of one-run ball and four whiffs in Everett on July 9. He then got his first save with Monty’s Mounties on July 13 against Hillsboro after Jarrod Watkins did not get back to the batter’s box in time. That resulted in an automatic strike three to end the game.
After ending July with a win against Everett on July 31, Kelly got the W in his first two appearances August that included a shutout inning against Tri-City on August 4. He would tally two more wins in August which included two scoreless frames and three strikeouts at Eugene on August 14.
In total, Kelly won nine of 11 decisions with a 4.69 ERA and 33 strikeouts over 40-1/3 innings with the C’s to help them reach the Northwest League final.
C’s Plus Baseball chatted with the 23 year-old Kelly—who will turn 24 on December 2—during the final regular season homestand of 2022. This interview has been edited for clarity.
C’s Plus Baseball – How did you get started in baseball?
Justin Kelly – I think I was probably three or four years old and my Dad brought home a tee-ball set and you know, we started swinging out there and it had the string attached to the ball so we didn’t have to chase the ball. It always comes back and honestly went from there man. I loved the sport since that age and continue to love it up until now.
CPB – When did you make the switch to pitching full-time?
JK – I made the switch when I entered college. I was recruited by a couple schools (as a) two-way player. I played shortstop in high school too, so I had the arm strength on the mound to pitch and when I got to Utah, I had a couple of talks in the fall if I was going to be able to swing the bat. And after seeing some of the guys pitch in the Pac-12 (Conference), I’m really glad I made the decision to just pitch. But yeah, (it was) my freshman year.
CPB – Looking back in your high school career, what stands out for you? Any special game or special memory that you have?
JK – My freshman year we made it to the playoffs. We had a pretty good club. A handful of guys went on to play college ball after that and it was just a fun environment to be around. A lot of the older guys being, you know, 14, 15 years old and being with guys that are 17, 18, I learned a lot from those guys and they kind of helped set me straight going forward through high school and into college.
CPB – You mentioned there were a couple schools interested in you but what made you decide to go to the University of Utah?
JK – Hometown kid. At first, I kind of wanted to get away from home actually, be out on my own and learn things that you can’t learn from being at home. But when Utah approached me towards the end of my senior year, I couldn’t pass it up. I’m grateful for the coaching staff to give me an opportunity that late in the season as a high school guy. I’m really lucky with the way things turned out.
CPB – Who helped you out at Utah? Who was really instrumental in your development?
JK – Mike Crawford was the pitching coach. He’s the one that gave me a chance. He came out to see me, for my last start of my senior year in May right before graduation. He came out to see me and then later on at Utah we hired Gary Henderson as a pitching coach. We picked him up from Mississippi State and he got away from the physical aspect of pitching and more (with the) mental (approach). How to be mentally tough and deal with the hardships that can happen out on the mound. Errors, walks, bad umpires, bad calls, whatever. He really turned things around on my head the last couple years I was at Utah. I’m really, really grateful for him.
CPB – Speaking of hardships, you had to miss a season. What happened after your freshman season?
JK – I was lucky to get 24, 25 innings in befor I blew out the elbow, had the surgery May 25th of ’18 and missed sophomore year. Looking back at it, I’m grateful for it. I learned a lot about myself and learned a lot about how to deal with things that you can’t control and that was obviously one thing I couldn’t control. So learned a lot about my body, learned a lot about my mental (approach) and I leaned a lot on my family and my friends. Being local, I had all my high school friends there still that I was best friends with and it kept me up and then got back out there for my junior year and went from there.
CPB – Now the one thing I’ve heard about Tommy John (surgery), it’s pretty monotonous. It’s a grind. How did you get through that?
JK – I knew I was gonna have ample time when I tore it and had the surgery. I knew I was going to miss about a year-and-a-half. So I knew it was going to be a long time. I had the calendar set out to when I was going to start playing catch again. We took our time. Most guys are about four months. I took about five just to make sure everything had healed and we were in a good place to start playing catch. And then from there, once I started playing catch and starting the throwing program and then getting on the mound again, that’s when it kind of sped up. I felt like an actual baseball player again.
CPB – 2020 went pretty well but unfortunately things got cut short due to COVID. What was going right for you? You felt healthy, you felt confident with the arm.?
JK – Yeah, you know, it’s another one of those things that you can’t control. Every guy out here, every guy that’s on a baseball field right now experienced something with 2020. Same thing. Just sticking to a routine. It was hard not being around the guys, not being in a clubhouse. I had my younger brother (Dillon Kelly) who’s 19 now that I played catch with at the time during COVID and all that, but I’m just grateful to be back out after that mess of a year.
CPB – 2021, things did not go your way on the mound. What was 2021 like for you?
JK – A big learning year. I had some ups and downs and same with this year into ’22 but in ’21, very similar to my senior high school. I was lucky to get an opportunity with the Jays after signing after the draft and a shout-out to Adam Arnold, the scout that got me looked at out there. Just extremely grateful. Another thing that you can’t control, but I remember talking with coach Gary Henderson, he’s now the head coach at Utah. He’s like, ‘If you get your opportunity, you run with it. Doesn’t matter when it is or where it is or who it is. If you get your opportunity, run with it.’ And I got mine.
CPB – When did you hear from the Blue Jays?
JK – I had a pre-draft workout in Phoenix. I can’t remember the date though. I’d been in contact with Arnold for most of the spring season. During the draft, I had a couple calls on day two but nothing lined up and it didn’t pan out. And maybe within 10 minutes of the draft calling, they were one of the first teams to call and it was a fairly quick decision. I talked with my family and talked with my (advisor) and it lined up well and I’m grateful for it.
CPB – You got to make your professional debut with the Dunedin Blue Jays. What was your first professional season like?
JK – It was good to get my feet wet in pro ball. Not used to playing every day. I think the closest thing in US college I got to playing every day was summer ball. I played in the Northwoods in 2020 but that’s nothing like professional baseball. So it was good. I got about a month-and-a-half in with Dunedin and got some innings in and got used to the higher competition. It was a good learning point.
CPB – Talk about your summer college ball experiences. I know you played in Portland so you’re used to being out the west coast. What were those seasons like?
JK – Portland was amazing. That was the summer I was coming back from Tommy John surgery, so I was really focused on just getting healthy again. I was healthy enough to pitch a game but I wasn’t a hundred percent so it was another summer where the numbers weren’t great but I was happy to just be back out on the mound again and get the mind right, get the body right. And then 2020 going to the Northwoods. I was playing for the St. Cloud Rox and the fact we even played that summer is incredible, (we were) extremely lucky to be able to do that. And I had great host families for both years and I couldn’t complain one bit about either summer. It was amazing.
CPB – In 2022 you’re back in Dunedin again and I’m sure you had a chance to sample the Player Development Complex. What was that like for you going inside a facility like that?
JK – Man, we got it good with the Blue Jays. I’ve played with a couple of guys over the years that are in different orgs and I think we’re in some cases miles ahead of other teams. We got good staff down there. Good trainers that care about your health and care about not only your health but your mental (health). We’ve got a great mental performance crew that I worked with down there and it’s incredible.
CPB – Mental performance. How huge is that for you to be able to just be able to focus and try to do your job the best you can because it’s a lot of pressure, the grind of it all?
JK – It is a grind. I’ve worked with (Mental Health Clinician) Paul Steinhauser, he’s down in Florida at the Complex. It’s just taking it not just one day at a time, but one pitch at a time. As guys that play 140 games a year, it’s really easy to start looking forward to the dog days of August and getting into September and the season’s coming to an end. But if you can take it literally one pitch at a time, those days will come. It’s just how time works. It’ll come. Those are the days early in the spring and midsummer when you can make some really big strides if you just take it one day at a time.
CPB – Was there anything you learned about yourself as far as maybe your pitching style goes or spin rate or velocity?
JK – All of it. (Laughs) Yeah, I didn’t know much at all actually. I didn’t have TrackMan in college. Get to the Blue Jays remembering draft camp back in. Why last year I hopped on a mound and guys are spitting numbers at from the TrackMan and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.’ I made a mental commitment to make sure I pay attention to not just my bullpens and the numbers that guys are talking about, but other guys’ bullpens. And someone like Matt Svanson knew a lot about these numbers when we came in and we were roommates in Dunedin the end of the last year and then the beginning of this year we were roommates as well. So I remember we’d be sitting in the hotel room and I’d be throwing random ideas at him and he’s just an informed guy, you know, he’s very well informed on the numbers. So it’s been fun learning all that information.
CPB – Back in 2022 with Dunedin starting your first full season. What was that experience like?
JK – It was good. I got COVID over Christmas. It set me back a little bit and I knew going into spring training I was going be a little bit behind where other guys were, whether it was velocity or strength. So it’s a minor setback but I knew I was probably going to start with Dunedin and I was happy for that. I got to work with Drew Hayes again, the pitching coach down there in Dunedin. He stuck with me through a lot of ups and lots of downs and he’s always been a guy that I could call if I needed something, text late night thoughts or whatever. And then I was lucky enough to get called up in June up to Vancouver.
CPB – How did you find out about the call to Baker?
JK – That was a funny one. We were down in Jupiter. Okay. My roommate was Trenton Wallace for that road trip and we just played the night before, I think. One or two days before I’d just given up a walk-off. homer in the ninth. I go to bed. We wake up in the morning at the hotel room, phone ringing. ‘Who’s calling us?’ You know. So I roll over to answer the phone. ‘Wally’ says he’s going to get the phone and we’re ‘Who’s going to answer the phone?’ He answers, hands it to me. And as I’m putting the phone to my ear, the hotel room door starts getting banged on. We’re like, ‘What is going on?’ And (Director of Minor League Operations) Charlie Wilson, he’s on the phone. ‘Hey, this is Charlie Wilson, we’re just letting you know that you’ve been called up to Vancouver. It’s time to pack your bags and let’s get you to the airport.’ And Wallace went and opened the door and it was Drew (Hayes). He came in. I guess I fell asleep, I didn’t have my phone on, it was on silent and they had been trying to get a hold of me for about an hour. It was kind of a mess that morning but it was cool, you know, I got the call, went outside, called my parents, let them know I made the move and it was a funny experience but it was a good one.
CPB – Is this the first time you’ve been in Canada?
JK – No, I played that summer in ’19 with the Portland Pickles. I played in Kelowna. Okay.
CPB – What were your initial impressions of Kelowna and here (in Vancouver)?
JK – We drove to Kelowna. It was a 10-hour drive, something like that from Portland. And I remember just looking out the window and seeing the waterfalls coming off the mountains that way. I just didn’t think Canada was like that, you know. Coming from Utah, we have the Rocky Mountains and it just reminded me a lot of home.
CPB – You get to Vancouver and get your first professional save. It was a very interesting end of the game. The batter wasn’t ready and (it’s an automatic) strike three. What was that like?
JK – I remember looking at the video because I think in that same outing I had been called for a ball (with the) pitch clock earlier in the outing. I remember going to toe the rubber, I was cleaning up the rubber part a little bit and after I toed it, I looked up and the umpire called time. He was walking out and he was pointing at his wrist and I thought I had just got called again (for a pitch clock violation). And then he turned to the batter and pointed towards home plate and called him out. Our guys are jumping out of the dugout, you know, we’re excited and I’m like, ‘I guess we’ll take it’. You experience something new every day, especially with all these rule changes and stuff in minor league baseball, but it’s something I’ll never forget.
CPB – Speaking of the rule changes, I believe you had a chance to pitch what the ABS (Automated Ball-Strike) system? What was that like?
JK – As a pitching staff, I think overall we were worried about it. Guys don’t like change in baseball and I was on board with that as well. You know, it’s baseball, you can’t change baseball that way. But after a couple weeks, we learned to love it a little bit. There were a couple times where the ball looked like it nowhere near the zone but you must have clipped it. ABS had it and you get a strike out of it. So I know they’ve made some changes to it, whether it’s too high or too low in the zone, the reactions from it are funny. Sometimes the hitters think it’s not even close and it ends up getting called a strike.
CPB – The pitch clock. How’s that been for you?
JK – Kind of the same thing. It felt like when I got up here, it was almost like I couldn’t catch my breath. It felt like it was moving so fast. But after that first outing, I like it a lot. The pace of plays. I think as fans and you guys up in the booth enjoy it too. There’s not a lot of dead time anymore. There’s been a couple times we’ve played sub two-hour games. I know in Dunedin we had it a couple of times and then here I think it’s good. I think we shouldn’t necessarily be paying three, three-and-a-half hour-long games. A lot of downtime. That’s one way to shorten it up. I think it works.
CPB – The new rules also limit (the number of) pick-off moves. You only get so many and you have bigger bases for runners to steal bases.
JK – There’s a lot of teams that will use that in their favour as baserunners. You know, if we pick off early in the count, they know we’ve really only got one more. Because if we go a third time, we have to get them out and if we don’t, it’s a balk. And coming from Spokane, Braiden Ward can really fly, the center fielder. I played against him in college. He went to University of Washington and he uses that to his advantage. If he gets a pickoff attempt early in the count, he’s probably going to run on the next pitch.
CPB – Your role on the team. It’s basically been a multi-inning reliever. How have you adjusted to that role?
JK – I enjoy it. I know I started in college. I know I can stretch out more than one or two innings. We bounced around a couple of times. There’s times when I’ve been in closing situations, times where I come in in the fourth or fifth to try to eat those middle innings. My job is to go out there and give our team the best chance that we can to win. So that’s the goal every time. Doesn’t matter what role it is, as long as I’m doing my job, I know the other guys will have my backs as well.
CPB – Your pitch mix. So what is that you’re throwing right now?
JK – I throw a traditional four-seam fastball. I try to create some lift with it up in the zone. I threw a curve ball in spring training and kind of banged that early on. Tried to learn the sweeping slider a lot of the guys throw now with the horizontal movement that’s ended up turning into a slurve a little bit. It’s kind of blended with the original curve ball and the sweeper I tried to learn and that’s the one I’ve become comfortable with throwing for strikes and putting guys away with as well. And then the out pitch is the cutter. It’s kind of more of a traditional slider. A hard slider that’s small but I call it a cutter. I don’t allow the shape of it to get too big.
CPB – Was there anyone who showed you that slider grip?
JK – When I got to Dunedin last year, after I signed, once the pitchers got together. I can’t remember when it was, but we got together and they found this new grip where you split the two-seam and essentially throw a curve ball with it and the seam shifted, the weight gets involved and it creates a sweeping action instead of a curve ball.
CPB – Final question, is there something someone should know about you that maybe they don’t, a hidden talent or anything like that?
JK – I did play trumpet in middle school. I feel like I should have something cooler than trumpet but that’s all I got.
- Uniform Numbers – Wore number 32 with Utah and 32 with Dunedin in 2021 and 22.
- Instagram – @j_kelly2323
- Twitter – @j_kelly2323
- Baseball Brother – Dillon Kelly will pitch for Salt Lake Community College in 2023.
- Did You Know? Kelly had a decision or a save in nine consecutive appearances from July 6-August 7 that included six wins and a save.
Thanks a million to Justin Kelly for the latest C’s Chat and to play-by-play man Tyler Zickel for arranging it.