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Mitch Keller controls his own future with Pirates more than ever

Mitch Keller significantly improved in the second half with the addition of a sinker.

St. Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Sometimes in life, it’s ‘just a matter of time.’

This can be commonly referred to when someone is looking for a big break, a family matter to subside, a new project to be finished, or a talented baseball prospect to find their grove.

There’s no sugarcoating it, Mitch Keller was a different pitcher in 2022.

The year began similar to the previous three seasons for the 26-year-old right-hander, struggling to keep runners off the bases and lacking the ability to pitch out of jams.

Everything changed when Keller embraced throwing a sinker, a pitch that single-handedly changed the course of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Keller flashed the sinker in late May and experimented with it to a high degree in June. He threw the pitch 40.1 percent of the time, more than any other month in 2022, getting a feel for the new offering.

According to Baseball Reference, Keller substantially dropped his four-seam fastball usage, from 45.6 to 17.3 percent spanning May to June. It wasn’t an immediate change in fortune for the former second-round pick, but it allowed his slider to draw greater swing-and-miss rates.

Opponents hit .265 in June, .400 in July, and .375 in August against the sinker until Keller used it as a successful out-pitch in September. He limited hitters to a .192 batting average and a .308 slugging percentage. Keller earned fewer swings and misses but by far the lowest exit velocity of any month, down nearly nine miles per hour from 90.4 to 81.5.

This helped his slider to reach new heights, limiting batters to .125 and .122 averages against in July and September, respectively.

Adding the sinker has provided Keller another option when his fastball, and/or slider is being identified and capitalized on. Keller’s fastball was struck at a .300 clip in September, but the success of the slider and sinker contributed to a 1.80 ERA in five starts, three against playoff teams.

Getting ahead in the count early was a strong suit for Keller, like most pitchers, contributing to a .220 average and 0.81 WHIP when in front compared to a .318 average when down in the count.

A 3.09 ERA in 13 starts after the All-Star Break likely earned Keller the ball to start Opening Day 2023 in Cincinnati.

Keller was also named the Pirates’ best pitcher by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Honored with the Steve Blass Award, Keller nudged out closer and Mars, Pa. native David Bednar for the distinction.

For the season, Keller’s ERA and WHIP bounced up and down but showed a positive sign:

  • APRIL: 6.62 ERA 1.64 WHIP
  • MAY: 5.19 ERA 1.50 WHIP
  • JUNE: 4.10 ERA 1.48 WHIP
  • JULY: 2.61 ERA 1.16 WHIP
  • AUGUST: 4.70 ERA 1.65 WHIP
  • SEPTEMBER: 1.80 ERA 1.10 WHIP
  • OCTOBER: 3.60 ERA 1.60 WHIP
  • TOTAL: 3.91 ERA 1.40 WHIP

From the beginning of April to one start in October, Keller made a drastic transformation that included a stint in the bullpen to revitalize the potential he flashed throughout the Minors and at times in Pittsburgh.

Despite the abundance of home runs spanning a full 162, starting pitching dominated the Wild Card Round of the 2022 playoffs. All good young teams need pitching, first and foremost, as a catalyst to becoming successful into October.

The Bucs hope Keller has finally flipped the script and turned a corner to be a top-of-the-rotation type arm. The verdict sure looks promising, if and only if, his second-half numbers can be sustained.