PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mitch Keller’s first go-round in the majors was a study in contrasts and a snapshot of where baseball is at in 2020.
The traditional numbers for the Pittsburgh Pirates top-ranked pitching prospect weren’t great. One win in 11 starts. An ERA north of 7.00. An inability to work deep into games. For a franchise that needs young players to do a fair share of the heavy lifting in order to contend, the early returns were jarring.
The advanced metrics, however, were far kinder to the big-armed 23-year-old. His spin rate, pitch efficiency and his strikeouts per nine innings (12.2) offered proof his stuff was good. That didn’t make it any easier for the soft-spoken kid from Iowa to endure. There would be times he would get to the dugout wondering how things got sideways so quickly.
“When you make pitches and a ground ball gets through the hole there or a double down the line or something like that, I mean, you kind of feel it out there,” Keller said. “Like, ‘Dang, that was a really good pitch.’ You kind of feel like you’re getting unlucky sometimes, but you’ve just got to keep pushing through. I say this, but hopefully it doesn’t last because that sucks.”
And that’s as close as the reserved Keller will get to expressing the inner frustration he felt last summer, a frustration Pirates shortstop and longtime friend Cole Tucker could sense.
“I know that he felt like he showed better than what showed up on the scoreboard or on the little ticker on ESPN,” Tucker said. “I think there’s still a ton of reason to have optimism about Keller because his stuff’s crazy.”
And hopefully a little bit more refined.
Keller spent the downtime created by the COVID-19 pandemic getting nerdy with his game, taking frequent deep dives into analytics provided by the Rapsodo machine that measures the effectiveness of every pitch. He also tinkered with a changeup that remains very much a work in progress and a necessity so opponents don’t sit on a fastball that is consistently in the mid-upper 90s.
Trying to take the data as well as the advice provided by new pitching coach Oscar Marin while also relying on the talent that fueled the second-round pick in the 2014 first-year player draft’s rise through the minors is a delicate dance.
“You can’t just go one way or the other,” Keller said. “You’ve got to rely on what feels good and right, too. You can’t go all-in on the numbers. But the numbers really do make me a better player.”
And Keller believes he is in a better position this time around despite the stop-start nature of the 2020 season. So does his new boss. First-year manager Derek Shelton asked around about Keller before coming on last December. The reports were overwhelmingly positive. The goal over the next three months is helping him take a step forward. Adding an offspeed pitch is a vital part of the journey.
“The changeup is a development pitch for any young starter,” Shelton said. “Usually, guys have either the breaking ball or the changeup when they come in and they develop the other one. He’s still working on it. His feel to pitch is pretty good and a changeup is a feel pitch. He’s going to have to continue to develop the grip and then (learn) how to maximize that pitch.”
Keller began 2020 hoping to make the opening day roster for the first time. That’s a given now with starter Chris Archer out for the shortened 60-game season and rosters expanded to 30 players for the opening weeks of a year unlike any other. He’s still working on his stamina, throwing just two innings during a simulated game on Sunday while most of the rest of starting rotation is stretched out to four or five.
He didn’t unlock a secret during the unexpected downtime so much as expand the foundation that’s carried him this far. He’s eager to see where it goes. So are the Pirates.
“(I’ve) figured out where I need to be to maybe have those unlucky times go the other way,” he said.