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Masterclass from Mitch: Keller shining as star of Pirates rotation

Keller owns a 2.72 ERA in 2023, 10th in the National League.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The stars are aligning for Mitch Keller. Once a top prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization who couldn’t find his way in the Major Leagues, Keller was relegated to the bullpen. In a last-ditch effort to save his career, Keller developed a cutter in preparation for returning to the starting rotation. It’s worked wonders.

Following a 6.17 ERA and 1.79 WHIP in 23 starts, Keller posted a 3.91 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 31 games (29 starts) in 2022 despite a 5-12 record. He flipped the script in July (2.61) and September (1.80) and has not looked back.

Entering 2023 as the Pirates’ Opening Day starter, expectations ran rampant for the 27-year-old to sustain the success he experienced to close last season and become a front-of-the-rotation starter. On Monday night, everything came together for the best start of his career.

The Pirates desperately needed a stopper after losing seven games in a row, including being swept by Tampa Bay and Toronto. Derek Shelton got it from their ace.

Keller delivered a complete-game shutout of the Colorado Rockies on 103 pitches in a game that lasted 1:55. The veteran right-hander hadn’t pitched past the seventh inning through his entire big league career before the home victory. Keller’s masterclass included four hits, one walk, eight strikeouts, and 77 pitches for strikes to snap a skid of 370 Bucco games without a complete game. It was the first CG since Steven Brault on Sept. 17, 2020.

He manhandled Colorado and was especially dominant in the final three frames. Keller shoved only 24 pitches over the seventh (9), eighth (8) and ninth (7) innings as he decreased the number of pitches needed to retire the side by one each inning.

Keller owns a 2.90 ERA over his last 30 starts. He ranks 10th in the National League in ERA (2.72) and tied for fourth in wins (4) and third in strikeouts (56). 4-1 through eight starts with a 1.09 WHIP, he owns a 2.20 ERA since allowing a season-high four earned in his first start.

The sinker saved Keller’s career. Since 2022, he has offered a sinker, sweeper and brought his cutter back this season after ditching it last year. Keller entered the Majors throwing his fastball nearly 60 percent of the time. He now deploys the pitch at a 26 percent rate. Keller outputs the sinker 20 percent of the time and the cutter at a 24 percent rate to induce weak contact. It’s improving his 98 MPH fastball, which batters are hitting .185 off, and given him five dependable offerings.

The cutter is being hit at a .182 clip with a 2446 spin rate and 24 percent whiff rate. Keller sits in the 92nd percentile in hard-hit percentage, 88th in average exit velocity, 83rd in fastball spin, and 74th in strikeout percentage.

14 walks compared to 56 strikeouts is a significant tipping point in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa native’s transformation. His 6.9 percent walk rate rivals the 8.7 percent clip from last season, and he is doing the small things right to mold into a No. 1 pitcher.

Keller told The Fan Morning Show Tuesday there have been contract extension talks but are only in the early stages of discussions. “We’re working on it,” Keller said.

Sitting 21-16 and a half-game up on the Milwaukee Brewers for first place in the NL Central, the Pirates have experienced an up-and-down start that still exceeds most expectations. Keller is a steady presence atop the rotation who went from one of the worst to one of the best starters in all of baseball. His pitch mix, willingness to adjust and develop new offerings, confidence in himself and determination to figure it out have paid dividends and is being rewarded for it.

The former second-round pick is looking like the guy who I watched in person start the 2017 Eastern League Championship in Double-A Altoona as the Eastern League Postseason MVP. The time is now for Mitch Keller, and he is shining bright as a potential star and candidate to pitch in Seattle at the 2023 All-Star Game.