There are always going to be bumps in the road, whatever you do in life. For Mitch Keller, those first bumps in his professional baseball career came at the end of 2018 and coincided with his promotion to Triple-A. As a player who’s ERA was never over 3.50 for his pro career but once in Rookie Ball, Keller posted a 4.82 ERA in his first 10 starts to wrap up last season at the top minor league level.
“I was just kind of working through a struggle,” Mitch Keller, the Pirates’ top pitching prospect (and Pirates #1 overall prospect on Ryan James’ 2019 Pirates Top 50) said when I spoke with him. “It just happens to everybody at some point. It happened to me a little bit in Spring Training too. I just keep going and do what I know works for me. It’s really just pushing through.” In his first taste of Triple-A in 2018 there were some definite struggles, even outside of just the elevated ERA. In 52.1 IP he allowed 59 hits and 28 ER to go along with 22 BB. A 1.55 WHIP is not what we or he has come to expect with the talent level he possesses. After 3 games this season we’re seeing improvement. As of publishing time for this column, Keller stands at 1-0, with a 3.86 ERA (6 ER in 14 IP, with 14 K), but his 10 BB and 2.00 WHIP need to be watched carefully. However, there are some signs of progress. Keller has been working on his curveball and change up more often. He also has thrown just over 60 percent of his pitches for strikes. While the walk totals are much higher, he threw just under 65 percent strikes last season.
“I am just going in, first big league camp, like a sponge, trying to soak up as much as I could,” Keller said. “From older guys like (Jameson Taillon), Trevor (Williams), (Chris) Archer, all those guys up there. Even Joe Musgrove, I’m sure I am forgetting a few, but they are all awesome to talk to and are really good friends getting me ready for the season.”
Keller said that he tries to take a little bit of something from each of the major league veteran members of the rotation. “Just watching how they go about their work day and how they prepare,” he said. “Seeing how they go about their business is huge for us down in Triple-A because we’re trying to be where they’re at and they know what it takes.”
While Keller was trying to glean as much as he could from the veterans, he also saw similar struggles in his first Major League camp on the field. In three games, two of which were starts, Keller allowed 10 hits and 10 earned runs in just four innings of work. He also walked three over that span. As for the reason for those results and for the tough start at Triple-A, Keller attributes it to pressing a bit. “I think I was just trying to be a little too fine,” he added. “Trying to be too perfect might have contributed to that a little bit. Just using what I have done in the past really got me through it.”
Indianapolis Indians manager Brian Esposito saw Keller’s struggles first hand last season and to begin the 2019 campaign. As for his rebounding, the skipper expects big things from the talented right-hander and looks at it as an experience to grow. “I expect him to learn from the adversity that hit him in the mouth last year,” Esposito said. “Some of the best lessons you can learn are to be hit in the mouth and see who you are as a man and what you are going to do to combat that adversity. He did some digging last offseason. He figured out what he needs to do a better job at, how he’s going to go about it. He has a plan in place and is going to go out there and try to execute it.”
Keller also sees a vast improvement with the talent at the higher levels, along with changes in the travel, the stadiums, and the way the players handle their business. He said that players are definitely better than the guys in Double-A, as they are much more experienced guys. He said that they know what they are looking for in an at bat and don’t generally miss it.
Overall, Keller has the feel of a young pitcher – only freshly 23 – who is trying to figure out some of the best talent in the game. Command has not been something that Keller has struggled with in the past, so this feels like potentially just a guy working on his full arsenal. While his full body struggles feels different, Keller feels a lot like Tyler Glasnow when he first arrived to Triple-A, at 22 years old – just like Keller. It took Glasnow until this season, at 25, to showcase his true dominance, but the abilities are about the same. The difference is that Keller has shown better command in the past and I expect it to improve as his comfort improves at this level. Either way, Keller has a blueprint that shows success is certainly possible with early struggles. As for promotion, the Pirates promoted Glasnow 35 starts at the Triple-A level. Keller, currently, only has 13.
Many expect Keller to make his major league debut sometime this season. Prospects1500 has him 29th overall on our list of Overall Top 185 prospects from back in January. Let’s see if he can inch his way further up that list into the Top 25, or better yet, graduate from the list and become a mainstay in Pittsburgh.