Mitch Keller has been regarded as one of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ best pitching prospects since being drafted in the second round of the 2014 MLB Draft.
Keller was lights out during his Minor League career including ERA’s of 2.35, 3.03, and 3.48 in 2016, 2017, and 2018, respectively. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa native made at least 23 starts in all three seasons.
This strong stretch of quality outings led into Keller’s Major League debut on May 27, 2019 against the Cincinnati Reds. He allowed six runs on seven hits and struck out seven batters in four innings, losing the game 8-1.
Keller’s first start had been comparable to the other 45 times he took the mound in the first inning.
He did, though, earn a 2.91 ERA in five starts during the 60-game 2020 season in a small sample size despite 18 walks spanning 21.2 innings pitched.
Now 26, Keller has not been able to find a common medium between great starts and games he gives up an insurmountable amount of runs for the Pirates’ offense to chip away at.
If there is one word to describe Keller’s biggest need in the big leagues, “consistency” is near, if not at the very top.
After exceeding rookie status in 2020, the right hander has changed the notion of being a “prospect” to a “project” and a head scratcher for what to do next with the high-upside starter.
The build up to 2022 displayed Keller reaching near triple digits with his fastball and showing good movement on his breaking pitches in side sessions. Regardless of those advancements, he has much more work to do against the opposition.
Keller has allowed 25 runs on 41 hits and has walked 14 batters compared to 30 punchouts in 35.1 innings. His WHIP (1.557) and ERA (6.37) are incredibly high compared to the original expectations of what Keller could become in the Majors.
On Wednesday’s YouTube TV broadcast of the Pirates and Cubs game from Wrigley Field, Keller’s shortcomings were on full display.
Since 2019 and going into Wednesday’s game, Keller ranks worst in baseball in winning percentage (.241), ERA (6.12), opposing average (.306), WHIP (1.70), and ERA+ (70). Yes, you read that correctly.
They just flashed this graphic on the @YouTube broadcast, as Mitch Keller entered the game. It’s … striking. pic.twitter.com/f8RvDiLm6P— Jason Mackey (@JMackeyPG) May 19, 2022
Those numbers are almost unbelievable to grasp, but shows the lack of success the once thought of top-of-the-rotation starter have brought to the table. Could Keller still become that? It’s possible. Tyler Glasnow instantly became better once he left Pittsburgh and was traded away to Tampa Bay. The situations are slightly different, but the talent level is there between both individuals.
If there’s any indication of what might happen to Keller to try and flip the script, the cards were shown Wednesday night.
Keller appeared out of the bullpen for the Bucs following Wil Crowe’s two innings as the opener. Keller pitched two and two-thirds innings, allowing one run on three hits, two walks, and four strikeouts. Keller earned his first win of the season in his first MLB relief appearance.
The opener worked for a few starts with Bryse Wilson and can be used to help starters in the first two innings, which the Pirates have been especially bad in, but is disappointing to see with Keller.
Wilson and also Zach Thompson, who also pitched after an opener, do not have the same level of talent that Keller contains in his repertoire.
Moving to the bullpen, if indeed this is the case moving forward, seems more like a demotion than anything. Keller, at this point, is likely to learn little at Triple-A and needs to work through his struggles at the MLB level.
The clock is close to striking midnight on Mitch Keller, and he needs to quickly fine tune his mechanics to consistently punch out hitters and limit free passes.
Keller has the tools, but the clock keeps moving faster and faster on his opportunity with the Pirates.