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Putting the ‘K’ in Keller: Pirates starter impressing in Spring Training

Mitch Keller has impressed in MLB Spring Training due to an increase in control and velocity

MLB: MAR 29 Spring Training - Red Sox at Pirates
Mitch Keller pitching against the Boston Red Sox on March 29
Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Mitch Keller may have found something.

Something that separates him from other talented pitchers who started their careers with rocky starts in the Steel City.

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ best young starter in the rotation oozing with upside and potential enters his fourth MLB season in 2022 hungry to showcase his best year yet.

Ranking as high as the No. 12 best prospect by Baseball America and No. 16 by MLB Pipeline prior to the 2018 season, Keller compiled a 3.03 earned run average in 2017 and 3.48 ERA in 2017. Sandwiched in between was a sub-2.00 mark in six Arizona Fall League starts.

Keller’s success in the minors has not transitioned into the majors. The 25-year-old owns a career 7-17 record with a 6.02 ERA and 1.732 WHIP in 39 starts spanning 2019-2021.

The Pirates are looking to prevent the next Tyler Glasnow, who has dealt with his own health issues but is dominant when on the field, and to maximize the high upside of the former second-round pick.

Strikeouts have not been a major weapon for Keller, punching out a respectable 173 batters in 170.1 innings, but walks have plagued the 6-2 righty.

Keller averaged a high 4.4 walks per nine average during his first three seasons including 7.5 per nine (18 walks in 21.2 innings) during the 60-game 2020 schedule.

He finished 2021 with a 5-11 record and 6.17 ERA. Keller was hit hard, literally, totaling a 47.5% hard-hit rate against him last season.

One ray of hope is an uptick in velocity.

Keller has worked extensively with Tread Athletics to improve as a pitcher. The results speak for themselves.

Not only has Keller’s velocity been floating near 98 mph, but his control is significantly better. Roberto Perez was mic’d up Tuesday during Keller’s start and alluded to the fun he has catching Keller. Mitch finished the day pitching four scoreless innings, allowing five hits, striking out four, and walking none against 17 total hitters. He also stranded runners on base to end his afternoon.

Yes, it’s Spring Training. Yes, there is still much more to prove for Keller to consistently thrive but the early results are promising.

Keller is dealing with a newfound confidence and desire to start ahead of hitters and control his breaking pitches late in counts.

Through three starts during the shortened spring, Keller has both allowed seven hits and struck out seven batters while only walking one in 8.2 innings.

It might be hard to find optimism in the 2022 ballclub, at least for the first few months before Oneil Cruz and Roansy Conteras are promoted for good, but the development of Keller is one to keep a curious eye on.

His success could go a long way in accelerating the current rebuild. 2022 must be a more productive season on the field than the previous three seasons, looking to mirror the off-the-field accomplishments with the draft, trades, and international signings.

With no established veteran outside of newcomer Jose Quintana, Keller could be in line to receive the Opening Day nod from manager Derek Shelton when the Pirates begin the regular season in St. Louis on April 7.

Regardless, Keller looks to be on the right path to reaching his potential and becoming a rotational anchor the Pirates have lacked due to health and inconsistency issues.

It sounds great and hopeful but it’s time to prove it on the field, and Keller has taken some of the first steps in doing so to join Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes as reliable pieces of the puzzle.

Putting the “K” in Keller and recording more strikeouts and fewer walks thanks to improved velocity and control will put the Bucs in contention to move out of the basement and in better shape to compete soon in a relatively weak NL Central.