Carson Kelly is a major-league catcher. We can say this in the present tense, as Kelly is currently receiving pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals, the team’s longtime backstop — one Yadier Molina — having suffered an injury no man wants to suffer when he took a 100-mph foul tip to the groin in a game against the Chicago Cubs on May 5th. (Molina had emergency surgery after the game and is projected to be sidelined four weeks.)
The I-55 pipeline between Memphis and St. Louis has long been frenetic, a two-way street traveled by current-and-future Cardinals hoping to maximize their time in the Gateway City and minimize any return trips to the Bluff City. Ask pitchers John Brebbia and Mike Mayers about this and they could probably map every rest area and billboard over the 280-mile trip. But no player currently personifies this final leap in the Cardinals’ farm system more than the 23-year-old Kelly. Yes, he’s a big-league catcher, for now. But yes, he’ll be back in Memphis this summer. For how long, it will depend largely on the health of his acclaimed mentor behind the plate.
There are major-league teams — probably as many as a dozen — for whom Kelly would be catching every day right now. (You can count on Kelly’s name surfacing in trade rumors as the summer unfolds, particularly if the Cardinals continue to struggle collectively at the plate.) His position is one that requires defensive talent to reach the majors, with merely competence as a batter enough to survive. Kelly was awarded a Gold Glove as the finest defensive catcher in all of minor-league baseball in 2015. In limited duty upon being promoted by the Cardinals last July, Kelly gunned down five of 11 would-be base-stealers. At the plate, he hit .283 in 68 games for Memphis but struggled for the Cardinals, batting .174 in 69 at-bats. (Since his promotion last week, Kelly has one hit in 16 at-bats.)
The fact that Kelly makes a living donning “the tools of ignorance” is splendidly ironic, considering he recently earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Oregon State. And it’s that “muscle” between Kelly’s ears that could make the eventual transition to full-time duty in St. Louis more seamless than it would be for most men following Molina. For it’s Molina’s game management — and particularly his handling of pitchers — that has long been considered the skill that makes him a future Hall of Famer. The eight-time Gold Glover turns 36 in July and has a contract that will keep him in St. Louis at least through the 2020 season. As Kelly plots his course for permanent status in the majors — with the Cardinals or another team — Molina’s proximity is considered a unique benefit.
“I’ve been getting to spend more time with Yadi,” said Kelly in April, shortly before the Redbirds opened their season. “Especially in spring training, then last year a good chunk of time [with the Cardinals]. All the studying of reports, formulating a game plan. It’s a little bit different up there. The small things he does, what he picks up on. We’d watch video together. Those little things . . . they’re priceless and they’ll help me down the road.”
Kelly has hit .234 in 21 games for Memphis this year. When I asked him about his hitting stroke in April, Kelly emphasized baseball’s elusive C-word: “Everything is about consistency in this game. It’s the small little details. There’s always something to work on.” Over the parts of three seasons with Memphis, Kelly has thrown out 22 of 86 base thieves. He remains the third-ranked player in the St. Louis farm system (behind pitchers Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty) and 55th in all of minor-league baseball according to Baseball America.
In addition to Molina, Kelly has the luxury of a manager in St. Louis who caught more than 1,000 big-league games and won four Gold Gloves himself. “Mike Matheny has been so gracious to me, helping me through my process,” notes Kelly. “Everybody’s been great to me, but it seems like Mike goes that little extra mile. It’s pretty awesome.”
He plays the most demanding position in sports, but with tools few others can claim. Whether he establishes traction with the Cardinals or here in Memphis, Carson Kelly appears to be playing for long-term gains. Something his economics professors would appreciate.