For most of the 21 months between the time when Anthony Kay signed his first professional contract and pitched in his first professional game, he toiled in Port St. Lucie during the painful and painfully slow Tommy John surgery rehabilitation process.
Port St. Lucie, where the Mets base their minor-league operations, is an innocuous coastal Florida town. It’s also not the place where Kay, a Stony Brook native and Ward Melville alumnus, intended to spend what should have been his first two seasons after the Mets drafted him in the first round in 2016.
The 6-foot, 218-pound lefthander earned his escape from PSL purgatory with a healthy spring training in 2018, breaking camp in early April with the low-Class A Columbia Fireflies.
“The back fields,” Kay said, “are not very fun.”
Kay, 23, is enjoying himself much more with Columbia. In four starts, he has a 2.70 ERA and 1.15 WHIP and has held opponents to a .219 average. He has struck out 18 batters and walked seven in 20 innings, a decent 2.6-to-1 ratio given that his fastball command isn’t great yet.
It’s only a handful of games at the lowest full-season rung of the minor-league ladder, but the fact that Kay is pitching at all in the Mets’ system is an organizational win a half-decade in the making.
The team originally drafted Kay in the 29th round in 2013, when he starred at Ward Melville, an alma mater he shares with Mets lefthander Steven Matz. Kay opted for college, and after he spent three years at UConn, the Mets picked him again with the bonus draft choice they received as compensation when Daniel Murphy signed with the Nationals. But a damaged ulnar collateral ligament in Kay’s left elbow forced him to undergo surgery in October 2016.
The Kay-Matz connection is a longtime, small-town one. They are not particularly close, but when Matz was an eighth-grader, he looked up to Ward Melville’s stud senior pitcher: Bobby Kay, Anthony’s brother. Four years later, when Matz was the stud senior pitcher about to be drafted by the Mets, Anthony Kay was the eighth-grader looking up to Matz.
Matz also had his pro debut delayed for years by elbow issues and Tommy John surgery. Kay said he offered some wise words about their shared injury history when they helped put on an offseason clinic at their old high school.
Matz’s advice: “Just be patient,” Kay said.
“He knows how long of a process it was,” he added. “It was tough having to sit there and watch everyone play while you’re just sitting out.”
The patience already is paying off. After more than a year of strength-building and rehab work — as opposed to pitching — Kay has seen his fastball velocity jump into the mid-90s, several miles per hour higher than it was pre-surgery.
Kay has been pleased, too, with how quickly his curveball has come back. More and more, it’s looking like a legitimate above-average pitch for him. Kay’s changeup, which helped put him on the first-round map at UConn, hasn’t looked the same as it did in college, but the belief is it will sharpen again in time.
“The main thing is that he’s healthy and he’s throwing the ball well. It’s good to see him out there competing,” Columbia manager Pedro Lopez said. “We’re still working on the fastball command, like everybody else here, but his ability to throw secondary pitches for strikes in any count at any particular moment [is impressive]. That makes him different from other pitchers his age. He’s not afraid.”
Kay, old for his minor-league level, might not be long for Columbia. He was seen as a relatively polished pitcher coming out of college and — like Matz once he was healthy — could be a fast riser. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said if Kay remains healthy and effective this year, he likely won’t have an innings limit.
“He’s worked hard at it,” Alderson said. “We’ll probably be somewhat aggressive with him, at least initially, to get him back to about where he would have been absent the injury.”
A promotion would, of course, mean playing for the high-Class A Mets and a return to Port St. Lucie. And that’s OK by Kay.
“I’ll be in the stadium [First Data Field] instead of on the back fields,” Kay said. “It’ll definitely be better.”