Things could not have gone much better in the minor leagues in 2015 for right-hander Ryan Kelly. Handed the closing duties in both Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett, he was nearly perfect, saving 23 of 24 games while allowing just four earned runs across 41 games and 47.0 innings.
After dominating minor league hitters from April through June, the 28-year-old wore out I-85 between Coolray Field and Turner Field from July through September. But each time Kelly was promoted to Atlanta for his first cracks at Major Leaguers, he struggled mightily, posting a 7.02 ERA (13 ER in 16.2 IP) while allowing opponents to bat .313.
He produced strong numbers for Mississippi to open the season, allowing one earned run in 18.2 innings, saving 10 of 11 games and recording three times more strikeouts than walks (18 K / 6 BB). Southern League batters managed just a .197 average against Kelly, with left-handed hitters managing only two hits in 20 at-bats. That effort led him to his first trip to the Triple-A level since 2013 with Tucson in the San Diego system.
Kelly fired 9.2 scoreless innings upon his arrival in Gwinnett, picking up four saves in four tries and earning a victory on June 3 at Norfolk. He was tagged for three runs on three hits on June 20 against Pawtucket, but instead of letting one bad outing snowball, he returned to the mound four days later and mowed down Indianapolis over a scoreless inning. His first promotion to the Majors soon followed on June 28.
In his MLB debut on June 30 against Washington, Kelly yielded a run on two hits in a 6-1 Braves’ loss before returning back to the minors three days later.
Over his next five appearances for Gwinnett, Kelly worked 7.0 innings, allowing one hit and one walk, while registering 10 strikeouts and holding opponents scoreless. He earned two wins and one save in that stretch and was recalled by Atlanta on July 17.
He got into games on back-to-back days against the Chicago Cubs, totaling 1.2 innings during which he allowed two hits and two runs (one earned) without picking up a strikeout.
After earning the save for Gwinnett on August 1 at Durham, Kelly was summoned back to the Majors for a week-long stint over which he made four appearances and allowed four earned runs on seven hits in 3.2 innings.
In his final stretch with the G-Braves in 2015, Kelly tossed 5.2 scoreless innings, converting five saves in as many chances and yielding only one hit through August 29. But when he went back to Atlanta in September, he tallied a 6.30 ERA in nine outings (10.0 innings), allowing two runs on three separate instances to close the season.
The Atlanta bullpen struggled as a whole in 2015, ranking 29th in MLB with a 4.29 ERA, allowing the third-most runs in the league (253) and earning the 25th-most strikeouts (430). Outside of Arodys Vizcaino (nine saves, 1.60 ERA), who appears to have a hold on the ninth inning, and veterans Jason Grilli (24 saves before tearing his left Achilles in July) and Jim Johnson (2.25 ERA for Atlanta) returning to the mix, there’s not a lot of proven right-handers currently in the Braves’ pen. As a non-roster invitee to Spring Training, Kelly will have an opportunity to battle for one of the remaining spots.
For Kelly to take that next “leap” and become a reliable mid-to-late-inning reliever for the Braves, he simply needs to prove he’s capable of getting Major League hitters out. He showed in 2015 that he shouldn’t need more seasoning in the minors, but he will need to carry those results over into the big leagues to avoid going back-and-forth on I-85 again this season.