Showcase : : Story
Sunday, June 12, 2016

Jr. Nat fine fit for IMG's Kelly

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – When you’re a young, hard-throwing right-handed pitcher from Saint Albans, W.V., with the words “TOP PROSPECT” essentially tattooed across your forehead, sometimes the best thing you can do is pull up stakes and leave home.

Such was the case with Levi Kelly, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound class of 2018 Louisiana State recruit who started to gain attention even before his eighth-grade year in school and especially after his freshman year at Nitro (W.V.) High School in the spring of 2015.

During the summer 2015, before the start of his sophomore year in high school, Levi Kelly and his family announced he would be transferring to the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

Kelly, who celebrated his 17th birthday on May 14, is at jetBlue Park this weekend for the Perfect Game Junior National Showcase, showing a bunch of very interested baseball people just how much his game has improved after spending the previous 10 months as part of the IMG program.

He came into PG’s top underclass showcase event ranked No. 11 nationally in the class of 2018, so he had obviously impressed PG’s scouting department during 17 previous appearances at PG events. Kelly jumps at any opportunity to showcase his skills, and the Jr. National provided the perfect stage.

“There’s a lot of exposure here; you get to see a lot of people,” Kelly said. “Obviously, I’m committed to LSU, but I think it’s always good to throw in front of people and pitch against the best kids in the country. It’s important to be here just to compete. Sometimes, if you’re not going against the top guys you tend to relax, but out here you’re going to have to have your best stuff or you’re going to get exposed. It’s good just to go against these type of guys.”

Eager to get this show on the road, Kelly took the ball to start the second game of the showcase mid-afternoon on Saturday. According to PG’s blog of his outing, Kelly showed a “durable starter’s build from a high three-quarter arm slot. Fastball worked 88-92 mph with heavy life low in the zone. Sharp downward curveball with 11-15 shape with developing feel for a changeup at 82 mph and showed a splitter with good tumble at 78 mph.” Working quickly, Kelly struck out five in his three innings of work.

“I’m really not a showcase kind of pitcher; I like to get the ‘W’, get the win for my team and go for an extended period of time and not just for (three) innings,” he said. “But it’s fun because you’re giving your best stuff, everybody’s seeing your best stuff and you’re seeing the hitters’ best stuff.”

Roger Kelly, Levi’s father, watched his son’s outing from a shaded area in jetBlue Park’s main seating area. Before Levi went out and threw, Roger told PG why he felt it was important for Levi to be here: “This is the time that you get all the best players at this age group all together at one central location,” he said. “You get to see the talent, see where you stand amongst the talent, see what you need to work on; things that you do well and things that don’t do so well.”

Much of the discussion PG had with the Kellys centered on Levi’s decision to transfer to IMG Academy. He just completed his first year – his sophomore year – at the highly regarded sports and academic academy and he made an immediate impact with the Ascenders’ baseball team. In nine appearances, Kelly finished 6-1 with a 0.95 ERA and 68 strikeouts and 18 walks in 36 2/3 innings pitched.

“You’re with the best coaches in the country and you have the best facilities in the country; there are no excuses there,” he said. “You can walk out at any time of the day and there’s seven baseball fields right there waiting on you. You really don’t have any excuses.”

When Kelly talks about not having any excuses, he’s referring to those often heard from players in the cold weather states who feel held back by their environment and their circumstances. At IMG, there is nothing holding a player back if – and there is no lack of opportunities – he is willing to put in the time and the effort. Every player in the program is there for one reason and that is to continue his baseball career at the highest level that will ultimately made available to him.

With the family living in West Virginia, Roger Kelly and his wife Cozetta got young Levi involved with the travel team organizations that would make sure he received the attention he coveted by playing in PG tournaments here in Fort Myers and also at Perfect Game Park South-LakePoint in Cartersville, Ga.

As the young Kelly’s game progressed and the more the family traveled south to take part in the PG events, the more Roger and Cozetta realized that time spent in Florida should become more permanent.

“Levi was in a hurry to move down to Florida and play with these guys all the time,” Roger Kelly said. “He was afraid that if we didn’t make the move that he would fall behind. When the opportunity came that he could enroll at IMG, we decided as a family that it was the right move for him. Now the family is in the process of everybody relocating down here right now.”

Kelly has been a bit of a wanderer when it comes to his summer travel ball affiliations. He made his PG tournament debut as a just-turned 14-year-old at the 13u PG BCS Finals with the SC Crush and was named to the all-tournament team. In 2014, he played in PG tournaments with the Upstate Mavericks and Dig in Baseball, and was with the Ohio Warhawks at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. -- all as a 15-year-old.

Last summer he played in events with the FTB Pride, Upstate Mavericks and IMG Academy, and this spring he was named to the all-tournament team at the PG WWBA West MLK Championship playing with the AZ T-Rex Baseball Club and at the PG High School Showdown playing with the IMG Academy Ascenders. He plans to play with Georgia-based Chain National this summer.

“I think you play better competition in the summer,” Kelly said. “Even though I left West Virginia and came down to Florida, at the end of the day it’s still high school baseball. In travel ball you definitely see better talent and you have to have your best stuff more often.”

Kelly enjoyed being at the PG Jr. National Showcase at the same time the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft was taking place. He speculated about the likelihood that two years from now he would hear the names of many of these guys that are here with him this weekend called early in the 2018 draft. He hopes one of those names is his own, of course, but he will never put the cart in front of the horse.

“You have to be humble,” Kelly said. “I think there are two types of players: those that are humble and those that get humbled; if you get the big head you’re going to get humbled really quick in this game. As long as you stay humble I think you’re going to be fine.”

Kelly, who carries a 3.8 GPA, was considering several schools early in the recruiting process but then quickly committed to the LSU Tigers and their coaching staff of head coach Paul Mainieri, pitching coach Alan Dunn and recruiting coordinator Andy Cannizaro. By his telling, he pitched on a Wednesday, made the trip to Baton Rouge on a Thursday and gave the staff his commitment that Saturday. “I just fell in love with the place. The coaches were awesome … and you’re playing in front of 10 or 11,000 people. It just doesn’t get any better than that,” he said.

“If it all ends today it’s already been one heck of a ride,” Levi’s dad added. “The people that we’ve got to meet along the way, his teammates and his coaches. And the college recruiting process? I think I enjoyed it as much as he did. We were on the road every weekend going to all these different schools and just as a family we got to spend a lot of time in the car together. If you’re locked in a car for eight hours a day, you’re going to have to get along. We had a good time throughout the whole process.”

Before Kelly’s run at the PG Jr. National concluded with his outing Saturday, he told PG what he hoped to take away from the experience: “I just really want to take this all in. You can’t get all worried about your velocity and just kind of have fun and enjoy the process. If you get too wrapped up in the hype of the event it’s going to eat you alive,” he said.

His dad said only that he hoped Levi would leave with a new sense of confidence that his game is progressing at a steady rate while also realizing he still has a lot of work to do if he is to reach the levels he hopes to achieve. He noted that participation in events such as these can be humbling but participation remains essential.

“I believe that (Perfect Game) is the most important tool that a player can use because of the credibility. Your numbers are your numbers,” Roger Kelly said. “Everybody has ‘daddy eyes’ and every dad’s going to tell you his son is the greatest. But when you get out on this field, the radar gun doesn’t know who’s throwing, so the stats are legit and I think the college coaches and the baseball community realize that. That’s why it’s so important to come to these events.”

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