Jason Kelly, Washington (Shotgun Spratling)

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Assistant Coach of the Year: UW’s Jason Kelly

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Jason Kelly was at a crossroads. It was October of 2004, and the 24-year-old Kelly was struggling to make ends meet as a volunteer assistant at Cal Poly by day, and a graveyard shift manager at a grocery store by night. He slept for two or three hours per night, then got up to give some lessons and head back to the ballpark. Baseball was in his blood, but he wasn’t sure how much longer he could hang on.

“I had enough savings to help me live, but those savings were crumbling. I don’t know if I would have left the game, but I needed a job,” Kelly reflected. “My wife and I were dating, and it was time for me to be a big boy at some point, in the game of baseball or not.”

So Kelly sat down with Cal Poly coach Larry Lee and explained his dilemma. As Kelly remembers it, Lee got a call the very next day from Lindsay Meggs, who was then the head coach at Division II power Chico (Calif.) State. Meggs was looking for a pitching coach; Lee literally just handed Kelly the phone. The next day, Kelly went to Chico to interview for the job.

Meggs said he got tipped off to Kelly by Poly’s then-pitching coach Jerry Weinstein, formerly the coach at Sacramento CC, where Meggs often recruited his players.

“(Weinstein) did say, ‘This guy’s a little on the young side, he’s a little inexperienced, but he comes from a baseball family,’ which is true,” Meggs said. “At that time at the Division II level at Chico, we didn’t have the money to pay somebody with the experience you might want, you were gonna have to take a chance on whoever you hired. I wanted somebody who could make mistakes and learn from mistakes. The fact that he was learning from Larry and Coach Weinstein was enough for me. It wasn’t that big of a chance when you think of it that way.”

It turned out, Kelly was a can’t-miss prospect in the coaching world, with a rare combination of baseball acumen, people skills and baseball blood lines that all helped him become one of the most respected pitching coaches in the West over the next decade and a half. Now the associate head coach at Washington, Kelly played an important role in helping Meggs guide the Huskies to their first College World Series appearance this spring. That trip to Omaha was the latest milestone in Kelly’s journey from grocery store night manager to 2018 D1Baseball Assistant Coach of the Year.

Of course, that journey started in earnest as soon as Kelly was born — because there aren’t many baseball families out there that can match his. Members of the Kelly clan are scattered all across the ranks of professional baseball. His uncle Pat Kelly is currently the bench coach for the Reds. His cousin Casey Kelly was a first-round pick by the Red Sox in 2008 who is currently playing in Triple-A. Casey’s brother Chris is a Southeast crosschecker for the Padres. Jason’s own brother, Dustin, is a hitting instructor in the Dodgers system.

Jason and Dustin were immersed in the game at a young age in an intense way. Their father Mike was an outfielder at Hawaii who was drafted in 1977, but by the time Jason was growing up, Mike was traveling around umpiring Division I and junior-college games in California — and bringing his boys along with him.

“It was like, ‘Here’s 10 bucks, we’ve got a doubleheader today, stay out of trouble, don’t get hurt and don’t ask for any more money,’” Kelly said. “You’re just at the yard chasing foul balls, running around and trying not to get in trouble. People say they were raised in the game, but we were sitting in the umpires locker room after the games, or the players locker rooms.

“If you don’t want to talk about baseball, don’t come to Thanksgiving at our family. Being a youngster, bat boy-ing for the Santa Maria Indians in the summer ball league, you just pick up so many things that you don’t even know that you know until you’re presented with them; you’re like, ‘Hey, I learned this one time.’ That osmosis, you’ve got to be around the game, and you learn something every day when you’re around it. So baseball has been 24 hours a day for 38 years.”

That’s why Kelly balked at the notion of leaving the game during those lean years as a volunteer. What else would he do with himself?

Fortunately Meggs called at the perfect time, and their work together bore immediate fruit. Kelly said it was a perfect situation for him to walk into as a young assistant, because Chico was already a “well-oiled machine” when he arrived. During Kelly’s two seasons with Meggs at Chico, the Wildcats made two D-II College World Series trips. When Meggs left for Indiana State after the 2006 season, Kelly returned to San Luis Obispo as a full-time assistant, spending the next six years as Lee’s pitching coach.

“(Meggs) and Larry are very different in the way they approach the game, both very successful but very different,” Kelly said. “To be part of it was a really great experience for me. Ultimately what prompted me to come back when (Meggs) got the job at Washington was that he was so good to me (at Chico). I had a great experience and I was ready to work with him again.”

Kelly reunited with Meggs at UW in August of 2012, and the duo has helped the Huskies reach three regionals in five years after snapping a 10-year postseason drought in 2014. Kelly’s tireless work on the recruiting trail alongside fellow assistant Donegal Fergus has helped lay the foundation for the program’s ascent, which culminated in its first-ever CWS appearance this spring. During his six years in the Pac, Kelly has earned the respect of his coaching peers as well as scouts in the region, who routinely sing his praises. As one rival Pac-12 head coach told D1Baseball during the postseason this year: “Jason Kelly does a really good job with the pitching staff. They know themselves very well.”

Washington’s Jason Kelly (UW Athletics)

And that last part cuts right to the heart of Kelly’s success as a pitching coach. He takes great care to treat each pitcher as an individual, with different strengths and weaknesses, different motivators and different training regimens to suit their different bodies. That individualized approach really does help pitchers know themselves, and pitch to their strengths once the lights come on.

“The challenge today, with the draft, advisers, crazy parents, it’s all about velocity, velocity, velocity,” Meggs said. “Kids come in and think, ‘If I can’t throw 95 by the time I leave, I’m not going to have a chance to get to the big leagues.’ He has helped guys understand sometimes by the time they get to the big leagues, they’re not throwing 95 mph, and you need to learn how to pitch. I could never do it, because he has 15 different routines for 15 different guys that are totally based on their needs and their needs only. He creates a routine for them, from what they’re going to eat the night before, to what they need to do to stretch, to what they need to do the day after. It’s different with hitters, you can say this is what we’re all doing today, these are the rounds of BP, it’s a little more general. He is ultra-specific with each and every guy, and that’s what our guys need.”

Kelly has had particular success turning undrafted, under-the-radar pitchers with modest physiques into impact performers who go on to pro ball after leaving UW — including stars like Tyler Davis and Noah Bremer. Kelly helped righty Joe DeMers blossom into an All-American as a junior this spring, two years after DeMers posted a 6.91 ERA as a freshman. Kelly helped DeMers understand that it isn’t necessary to try to blow 96 mph heat by hitters on every pitch; now he can dominate with a lively fastball at 90 and simply pitch to contact, or mix in one of his three secondary pitches in any count.

Kelly excels at every aspect of his craft, from teaching mechanics to communicating his message and getting players to buy in. He’s an outstanding recruiter who has learned to identify diamonds in the rough who are willing to play at the Northernmost Division I baseball program in the country. He develops winning pitching plans to get the most out of the arms at his disposal. He even handles the in-game television interviews that Meggs disdains.

“I’ve kind of watched him grow up from a young pitching coach who was learning how to develop pitchers, to a guy who now in my opinion has as good a grasp on the whole thing — from recruiting to player development, to practice planning and game management — as any assistant coach in the game,” Meggs said. “I’ve said this to other people: the art of pitching is such a specific skill, and an all-encompassing skill that many times, those pitching coaches are so engrossed in that challenge that they either don’t have time or the energy or the skill set to really help you with the rest of the game. The unique thing for me about JK is, he’s like a major league bench coach. He could be somebody’s hitting coach, he could help infielders become better with their footwork. He has conversations with our hitters. I’m not disrespecting the pitching coach position, because it’s probably the most difficult on the field, but it’s just so specific that sometimes it’s not what you want in a bench coach. This guy could be a major league pitching coach or bench coach. He’s really good in the moment. He’s fun to work with that way.

“He’s going to be a good head coach because he has a feel for a lot more than just the pitching part.”

Kelly said he does have to pinch himself sometimes when he thinks about how far he has come in the last 15 years since his grocery store days, especially on the heels of a run to Omaha.

“That’s why it’s good to sit back and look at it, because players have come a long way from when you first started recruiting them and they were 14 years old. The rest of the coaching staff has come a long way, the ballpark,” Kelly said. “The University of Washington is a special place, and the administration has done a lot to help us get where we wanted to get. To actually win games and get to Omaha is what everybody has been working hard for. It’s exciting. …

“So I’m really grateful for the opportunity (Meggs gave him), because I could be somewhere else right now, and I really love where I’m at.”

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