A Pittsburgh Pirates win doesn’t mean all that much at this point in a season that’s taken a brutal turn in the wrong direction. However, when the team’s number one prospect, who has struggled in limited MLB time thus far, goes out and shows some impressive stuff en route to his first career win, it’s worth a brief celebration.
I thought it might be interesting to dig a little deeper on Mitch Keller’s third career MLB start in Los Angeles last night against the Angels to get a clearer picture of what he did well, what he needs to work on, and what to look for over the next month and a half. Feel free to add your thoughts and feedback (good, bad, or indifferent) in the comments below!
*Note: All pitching data in this article comes from either the official MLB website or BrooksBaseball.net.*
Inning By Inning
As Alex mentioned in his recap article from last night (AKA early this morning), Keller started off the game very four-seam fastball heavy. He entered the bottom of the first inning already holding a 3-0 lead thanks to a nice showing by the Bucs offense in the top of the frame (and a horrendous showing by the Angels defense). Leadoff hitter Kole Calhoun saw four straight fastballs, three for strikes, and he lined the last one softly to left fielder Bryan Reynolds.
Mike Trout came up in the second spot of the order and saw his share of fastballs as well. After gettting a called strike on the first, Keller missed with the next two before missing low with his first slider of the game. With a 3-1 count, he then threw two 98 mph fastballs right down the pipe, and Trout fouled both straight back. The righty tried to come back with a curveball but missed outside, resulting in his first walk of the game.
Shohei Ohtani watched two fastballs for strikes, fouled one off, laid off a curveball down, and then swung through another 98 mph fastball that was placed nicely on the lower inside corner. It was Keller’s first strikeout of four on the night (video of all four strikeout pitches below). Justin Upton watched a fastball for a strike as well before hitting a curveball that caught too much plate hard to right center field for a flyout. That ended the first for Keller, and he had thrown 20 pitches, 16 four-seam fastballs
Keller’s fastball trend continued for the bottom half of the order, as he got ahead of Albert Pujols quickly 0-2 on two heaters. He missed with a slider, but threw another to get a soft grounder up the middle into the shift for the first out.
Fellow rookie Matt Thaiss fouled off two fastballs and a curveball on the first three pitches he saw, all very close to the middle of the plate. Keller then missed high with another 98 mph dart before bringing it down a touch and getting his second strikeout on a 97 mph fastball at the letters.
With two outs, Keller picked the edges of the zone with three pitches to Luis Rengifo, but the second baseman hit a hard groundball through the left side for a single. That brought up catcher Max Stassi who saw Keller’s first non-fastball first pitch, a slider right down the middle called for a strike. Two pitches later he induced a weak grounder up the middle with a fastball, but Kevin Newman and Eric Gonzalez couldn’t come up with it. The fault was partially on both of them, and I probably would’ve given Gonzalez the error, but as of Tuesday morning it’s logged as the second of five hits in the contest.
Things could’ve gotten ugly with men on the corners and two outs, but Wilfredo Tovar hit a screaming line drive right to right fielder Melky Cabrera for the third out. Keller was at 37 pitches through two full innings.
The top of the order came to bat in the bottom of the third inning, and Keller was saddled with a 6-0 lead at the time. He led off Calhoun with a curveball for a called strike, a swinging strike on a high fastball, two nibble fastballs (one for a ball and one fouled off), and finally a nasty curve perfectly painted low and away to get Calhoun swinging. It got the Angels’ broadcast team talking a bit, and it was one of the best pitches of Keller’s 94 total.
Trout came to bat for the second time, and Keller was gifted a first pitch strike call on a low fastball. He followed with two sliders, one missed low and one was fouled off, and then he jammed the center fielder a bit to induce a soft flyout to right field. Two outs.
Keller pulled out his first changeup of the night to Ohtani for a ball outside, and Ohtani showed he was on the fastball this time, fouling off three of them with a curveball that missed mixed in there. Keller then came back to the changeup that started the at-bat, this time throwing it middle-middle to get a weak groudout to second base. That rounded out a beautiful 1-2-3 inning and put Keller at 52 pitches through three frames.
Keller was cruisng through three innings, but the fourth was a little more eventful, as Justin Upton led off with a 1-0 line drive single to left field. The rookie pitcher was unphased against the veteran Pujols though, and worked a quick strikeout. He started with a slider down the middle for a called strike, got shafted on a low fastball that should have been called a strike, buckled Pujols a bit with a nasty called slider down the middle, and then finished him off with another slider, this time throwing it low out of the zone to get his fourth swinging strikeout.
Things got murky in a hurry though, as Thaiss ripped a 3-1 fastball to right field, sending Upton to third. Then, after throwing two beautiful curveballs on the lower outside corner to Rengifo, one a called strike and one a swinging strike, Keller tried another 0-2 curve but this time hit the batter in the foot to load the bases with one out.
Keller faced Stassi and got ahead in the count again with a slider called and a fastball swinging. He then missed with a low slider and Stassi hit a high fastball (just up out of the zone) very hard to deep center field for an easy sacrifice fly. Again, a pretty good pitch sequence, but just could not finish with a strikeout. Keller avoided any further damage by inducing a grounder from Tovar on the first pitch, ending the inning with one run allowed. He was at 71 pitches through four innings, and still looking mighty fine to earn a quality start and a win.
Keller’s effectiveness began to crumble a bit more the third time through the order. Calhoun led off once again, sending a sharp line drive single to right field on a first pitch fastball over the middle of the plate. Trout followed for his third at-bat, and it was once again a battle for Keller. After two breaking balls in the dirt made it 2-0, the Bucs pitcher painted three pitches nicely on the lower outside portion of the zone. Trout fouled off all three in this order: 97 fastball, 96 fastball, 82 curveball. Keller couldn’t find the zone with the next two fastballs though, walking the Angel’s best hitter on seven pitches to put runners on first and second with no outs.
Ohtani entered the box and swung and missed at the first pitch, inside curveball. He then fouled off a fastball that caught a little too much plate. Keller missed with a fastball outside, but on the fourth pitch he got a soft liner up the middle that just missed his glove. Gonzalez turned it into a double-play by touching second and throwing on to first, making it two outs with a man on third. It looked as though Keller might be able to get out of the fifth without any damage after all.
Keller played around with the dangerous Upton a bit, going slider (ball), slider (swinging strike), fastball (ball), fastball (foul), curveball (ball), and slider (in play). Upton’s hit was just a soft chopper towards third base, but Pablo Reyes let it fall right out of his glove during the transfer, and Upton reached on the error, allowing an unearned run to score. After a mound visit by Ray Searage, Keller was able to get another swinging strike with his slider before eventually getting Pujols to ground out to shortstop, ending the inning. That would close the books on the hurler after 94 pitches, as the Pirates scored two more runs in the top of the 6th to make it 9-2 at the time.
What did we learn?
So the final line on Keller comes out to be 5.0 IP, 5 hits (eh, I would’ve called it 4), 2 BBs, 1 HBP, 4 Ks, and 2 runs (1 earned). It doesn’t look great on the surface, and if you didn’t watch the outing you’re probably thinking this wasn’t the stuff of a top pitching prospect, but I woke up this morning feeling pretty good about what we saw from our young pitching piece last night in California.
For one, the stuff was there. No matter what you want to say about his pitch selection, efficiency, or anything else regarding the outing, it’s tough to argue that this kid has major league stuff. He’s very simple and deliberate with his wind-up and mechanics, and his fastball has a very easy feel to it, especially when you consider that he can ramp it up to 97 or 98 mph consistently. I loved that he feels confident enough with his slider control to use it on any count. We saw instances of first-pitch, get-me-over sliders, and we also saw plenty of put-away sliders too. There’s two very clear velocity bands between fastball (mid to high 90s) and slider (mid to high 80s), and then the curveball comes into play in the low 80s. The curve has nice, late-breaking movement to it, and often times drops off the table late in its trajectory. We saw Calhoun get tied up by it in the clip above. The changeup is just a back-up piece right now, but it’s good to know a fourth pitch exists in special circumstances like the second Ohtani at-bat described earlier. All-in-all, Keller got 10 whiffs on 94 pitches, and four came from fastballs, three from sliders, and three from curves. It’s great to see that he can get swings and misses with at least three different pitches right out of the gate.
Pitch selection seemed great to me, and that’s likely in large part to a great defensive-minded catcher in Jacob Stallings behind the plate. According to Brooks Baseball, Keller through the four-seamer 56% of the time, the slider 19% of the time, the curve 18% of the time, and the change just at 4%. That’s a good mix that led to an aggressive approach with plenty of strikes (61 out of 94) but also the ability to keep opposing hitters off balance with off-speed and breaking pitches on the corners and out of the zone. There was plenty to enjoy with the way Stallings and Keller worked together, and I’m interested to see if they’ll continue getting paired up moving forward.
My last tidbit on Keller’s outing is a note about the location of his pitches. You may have picked up on it during my inning-by-inning breakdown above: Keller leaves a lot of pitches in the middle of the strike zone. Luckily he wasn’t harmed by it too much in this outing. In fact, he was actually plagued by plays that weren’t made on good pitches. But, there were a few times when a pitch was fouled off or hit at one of the Pirate fielders where I thought it could’ve very well been hit over the fence or in a gap. A couple examples that come to mind are the consecutive middle-middle fastballs to Trout in his first at-bat, the line drive by Tovar right at Cabrera in the second inning, and the singles by Upton and Calhoun to lead off the fourth and fifth innings. I’m thinking these misses come partially from the aggressiveness to want to get pitches over the plate for strikes, but they could also be an adjustment that will need to be made at the Major League level, because 96-98 mph fastballs don’t fool hitters up here. The fastballs, while they do get on batters quickly, don’t have a whole lot of run or wacky movement, so I’m interested to see how these middle-middle pitches pan out of the next few starts. Regardless, if that’s the worst takeaway of the outing (outside of the hit by pitch with a curveball on an 0-2 count I suppose) then I think we’re looking at a pretty good thing here!
Things are bleak right now for Pirates fans. The front office is going to have to make some changes if they want the fan base to buy back in for next season, as this tumultuous losing streak has everyone finding the negatives everywhere. So, it’s nice to see a glimpse of positivity from a player who needs to be a big part of our future. In looking at our current rotation, Keller is going to be asked to be a big piece of the puzzle, possibly starting as early as Opening Day 2020. I’m exhilarated to see him get his first win, and I’m optimistic that the deep dive brought out some awesome behind-the-scenes info. Let’s hope we’re in for a fun ride with the young righty, number 23, Mitch Keller.