The COVID-19 pandemic — as many anticipated — had some noticeable implications on the 2020 MLB Draft, particularly in that we saw a slew of college prospects get their name called early and often during Wednesday night’s opening round.
One team that benefited greatly from the heavy run on college prospects was the Chicago White Sox, assuming they can reach a deal with the No. 47 overall pick, Jared Kelley that will keep him from ever hitting campus in Austin this coming fall.
I got to spend some time on the phone this afternoon with Refugio High School’s head baseball coach, Jarod Kay. Coach Kay provided me with some excellent insight on the newest member of the White Sox, Jared Kelley.
Kelley, the flame-throwing prep prospect from Refugio, Texas has long been talked about as a premium first-round talent in this year’s draft and was ranked No. 12 on Baseball America’s big board heading into the draft.
While there was an understandable degree of disappointment in the Refugio area when Wednesday’s first-round came to a close with Kelley’s name still on the board, Kelley’s high school coach Jarod Kay says that “everybody around here is a White Sox fan now.”
Regardless of where Kelley heard his name called, he got the opportunity that kids dream about in just having his name called, and in his small community of Refugio he’s the talk of the town.
“For a small town like ours that has about 2,000 people in it, having a kid get drafted by a professional sports team right out of high school just doesn’t happen,” Kay said. “It’s been pretty surreal, and I can only imagine what it was like for Jared and his family.”
Despite the attention that he’s received over the last few years throughout the scouting process by colleges and pro scouts, and now the even greater spotlight of being drafted, Coach Kay insists that Kelley is just a humble, down-to-earth kid.
“He’s never been a kid that let that attention go to his head, or let it affect him,” Kay said. “He’s extremely humble and hard-working.”
And you’d have to be to accomplish what Kelley has already to this point in his young baseball career, and so much more during his four years at Refugio high school. Nationally, we know about Jared Kelley the pitcher, but locally he’s known as the complete package.
During his freshman year at Refugio high Kelley was a three-sport athlete, playing football, basketball, and baseball, excelling at all of them. Kelley was an all-district basketball player on the hardwood before giving up hoops due to the Texas basketball and baseball seasons overlapping in the early spring.
During his sophomore year, Kelley was the starting quarterback for the Refugio Bobcats football team, he started 15 games and helped take Refugio back to the state title game, “throwing for like 3,500 yards and 55 touchdowns.”
Coach Kay said that Kelley even dabbled in track and field during his time at Refugio. Even with a nearly year-round sports schedule, Kelley shined as a student in the classroom as a straight-A student, graduating with their highest honors.
“He’s just an awesome kid,” Kay said. “I don’t know a single teacher or anybody with anything bad to say about the kid.”
Of course, we did talk baseball during our conversation, and Coach Kay had plenty of things to say that will be music to the ears of White Sox fans.
During the lead-up to the draft, I could only find one question about Kelley’s game that arose frequently, and that was regarding the necessary development to his breaking ball. According to Coach Kay, one of the more disappointing things about this spring being wiped out by the pandemic, was that Kelley wasn’t able to show off all the work he put into refining that third offering that many have as a question mark at this point.
“One of the things that he was really disappointed about, as far as this year being cut short was that he had a number of goals and we had a number of goals as a team, but one thing that he worked really hard on with his pitching coach was his curveball, or breaking ball.”
“We felt like it was a lot better,” said Kay. “The command, the break, everything.”
Coach Kay has seen the same evaluations that you and I have, pointing to Kelley’s breaking ball being a question, and he doesn’t like it.
“A lot of people don’t take into account that for us when he’s pitching we need him to go as long as he can'” said Kay. “Because we’re on the pitch count limits, and we’re playing multiple games each week, he didn’t have to throw it [the breaking ball] a lot in our games, because he can strike people out with the fastball or changeup.”
While studying up on Kelley I’ve seen his breaking ball classified as a slider in some places, and a slurve in others and Coach Kay told me that he has two variations of his breaking ball, one that has more characteristics of a traditional curveball, and one that Coach Kay described as, “slurve/slider with late action on it.”
But that fastball, right? Even Kelley himself has told local media down in Texas that he knows that his fastball is the main attraction for scouts and college coaches.
Coach Kay said that he’s never seen anything like it. Kelley can run his fastball up into the high 90s, being clocked at 99 miles per hour multiple times during last summer’s showcase circuit, and thanks to one of the more repeatable and effortless deliveries in the draft, Kelley can maintain that velocity deep into his outings.
“One of the things that he [Kelley] has improved on continuously throughout his career is maintaining his velocity into the later innings,” Kay said. “Last year, teams would clock Jared early in the game at 97, 98, 99, but later on in like the fifth or sixth inning he was still at like 95.”
“I’ll be honest with you, my assistant and I would be sitting in the dugout watching him during the game and we’d be like, ‘man, it doesn’t even look like he’s throwing that hard,’ because it’s just so easy and so natural for him. The ball just jumps out of his hand. I’ve never been around anything like it, it’s pretty neat.”
Coach Kay even joked about Kelley losing strike calls on his fastball because umpires just simply couldn’t see it. They just weren’t used to seeing a kid of his age standing about 65 feet from them firing off upper-90s heaters in their direction.
While Kelley wasn’t afforded the opportunity to showcase his improved breaking ball to scouts as much as he would have liked this spring, he was absolutely untouchable in the brief opportunities that he did have before Texas stopped their high school baseball season back in March.
In his 12 innings of work this spring, Kelley struck out 34 opposing hitters, walked just three, and didn’t allow a single run or hit. With 34 of the 36 outs recorded while he was on the mound coming via the punchout, Kelley was on pace for a mind-blowing season that would have likely vaulted him even higher in the draft than many originally predicted. “He was probably more dominant to start off this year than he’s ever been,” Kay said.
As far as what Coach Kay sees for his now-former staff ace moving forward, “the sky’s the limit.”
“I think he wound up in a really good spot [in the White Sox system],” Kay Said. “I know their farm system is ranked pretty high, and I know they’ve got a lot of really good young talent in their system. I think that he will benefit from what appears from the outside to be a really good system, and I think that they will be able to develop him and bring him along.”
“I think just being able to focus on baseball, and getting into a major league system with major league pitching coaches… the sky’s the limit at this point. He’s only going to continue to get better, and I feel like he could be in the bigs in the next few years. As long as he continues to develop and stay healthy, and he’s never had any health problems, I think it [the future] looks good for him.”
I asked Coach Kay to give me one thing that he would like White Sox fans to know about Kelley that we can’t find on a scouting report, and his answer will have Sox fans even more fired up about the future.
“He is the ultimate competitor,” Kay said. “Given everything that’s happened over the last few days [with Kelley sliding to No. 47] you’re going to get a kid that’s not only talented enough to be a dominant pitcher, but you’re getting a kid that’s going to have a chip on his shoulder that’s going to come to work every day willing to do whatever he can to help the organization get to the next level.”
Coach Kay left me with a story about Kelley’s competitor mentality that was on full display during the fifth round of the playoffs last season. In the days leading up to the first game of the series, Kay and his coaching staff talked up an opposing hitter who had been absolutely raking that season. Jared Kelley got the game one start that weekend, and the big-time hitter that the coaching staff talked about all week was penciled into the cleanup spot for that game.
After mowing down the opposition 1-2-3 in the opening frame, Coach Kay reminded Kelley who was set to lead off that inning as the Refugio junior made his way to the mound for the second inning. Kelley looked Coach Kay dead in the eyes in front of the entire dugout and told his coach that he was, “throwing him nothing but fastballs, and he’s not going to touch one of them.”
Kelley took the mound and fired three straight fastballs past the kid, and did the same each time he faced him for the rest of his outing. “If you put a challenge in front of him, he’s going to be like, ‘I don’t think so. This kid is not hitting me.’ He always wants to prove that he’s the best.”
Soon Jared Kelley will have the opportunity to prove that he is the best, and hopefully he makes his high school coach’s prediction come true on the South side of Chicago.