Cardinals prospect Carson Kelly is making good progress this spring in his transition from playing third base to moving behind the plate.
By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – Carson Kelly arrives at the Cardinals spring training complex each morning before the sun comes up. Classes in the Yadier Molina School of Catching begin early.
The 19-year-old Kelly is the youngest player in the Cardinals camp, and also the one with perhaps the most to learn as his transformation from playing third base at short-season State College, Pa., last year to catching – which he last did in the eighth grade -- is underway.
The early reports from all involved are that the student is progressing very well.
“He’s impressed a lot of people,” said manager Mike Matheny, who knows a little about the position himself. “It’s not an easy position to jump into at any level, let alone in the big leagues. He’s really made some nice strides. It’s been a success for him already with the things he’s been able to do.
“Probably as impressive as anything is his willingness to go and learn. He follows Yadi like they are attached at the hip and that was something he wanted to do and was endorsed by Yadi. How can you put a price tag on what that means to a young catcher?”
Kelly, a second-round draft pick in 2012, certainly can’t. The words he uses to describe the 6 a.m. sessions in the dark with Molina are tremendous and amazing.
“Any time you can get around him, you just listen and watch what he does,” Kelly said. “It’s unbelievable. I’ve learned more by watching than going out there and trying to do it. Eventually I try to incorporate it and try to harness what I’ve seen.
“Watching the way he goes about his business, it’s exciting. Just having this opportunity is truly a blessing.”
Molina was quick to agree to serve as a mentor and teacher for Kelly because he was once in the same position, watching and learning about how to improve his skills from a veteran catcher – Matheny – a decade ago.
“He’s a good kid,” Molina said. “It’s like when I was a kid like him, doing the same thing with Mike. I do like it, because this kid is a good listener. He wants to get better each day and he works hard … He’s going to be good.”
The Cardinals made the decision to have Kelly change positions after last season, his first full season in the organization, when he hit .277 in the New York-Penn League. He got his first lessons in the instructional league last October.
“When he started you could see the work ethic was clearly there,” said Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals’ director of player development. “You could tell right away he was committed to getting it done.
“It was a good fit for where his tools played and where he could really have an impact moving forward. He had a nice year offensively, and then you have to see defensively where he fits best. We really felt we wanted to explore this whole catching option. Carson has every quality to make this work.”
The first quality is his acceptance of the position.
“It’s going to take time, I understand that and I am embracing it,” Kelly said. “I’m trying to be a student of the game and learn as much as I can from the guys here, who have had a much longer career than I have had.”
Even after he leaves the ballpark each day – usually after almost all of the other players have gone home – Kelly’s education continues. He spends part of that time by himself writing notes about what he did and what he needs to remember from that day’s lessons and experiences.
“I usually pick up stuff pretty quickly,” Kelly said. “I like to write stuff down so I can go back and refer to it. I keep daily notes on the pitchers I’ve caught and what they throw. I do it after practice. It’s helped me and kind of gets the learning curve growing a little bit.”
Even if he was not trying to learn a new position, Kelly would be in a unique place in the Cardinals’ camp because of his status as the youngest of the 59 players here. He will not turn 20 years old until July.
“I understand my role as a younger guy coming in here, but once I’m on the field I’ve got to take charge and that’s been the focus the last few days. Being that leader and taking charge is something they want to see.”
That was indeed the latest challenge given to him by Matheny, and one the manager expects will happen naturally as Kelly becomes more experienced and comfortable at the position.
When Kelly first arrived in Florida, Matheny did not think his education would include appearing behind the plate in a game during the exhibition season, which begins on Friday with a game against the Miami Marlins. Now, he says Kelly has progressed so quickly that could happen.
“I am not ruling that out after watching him,” Matheny said. “I don’t want to put him in situations where you could put him backward but this kid is pretty tough.”
Kelly’s education is as much about the mental aspect of catching as it is learning the physical skills involved.
“That’s the beauty of what is going on in the cages and in those conversations that start real early in the morning,” Matheny said. “He (Kelly) realizes he is behind on that. In the cages, in the weight room and around that ping-pong table, guys are talking shop. He is asking all the right questions. Does it replace years of experience? No, but it’s definitely a good baseline to start with.”
Kelly’s baseball education included appearing in three major-league exhibition games last year, just 10 months after his high school graduation, when he was called over from the minor-league camp. He went 1-for-3, hitting a double against the Mets. Having had that experience has helped make Kelly more comfortable, even in his different role, this spring.
“The first time I got in a game last year it was like ‘Wow, what’s going on?’” he said. “I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I think now I understand the process better and how everything works.”