BRADENTON, Fl. – Mitch Keller is going to get a big challenge this year. The 2014 second round pick out of high school is making the jump to West Virginia this year, where he will be one of the youngest pitchers in a league dominated by college hitters.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Keller said. “Just being in a full season club, not having short season. I think I’m ready for it, body and mentally. Looking forward to it.”
One concern about Keller this year is that he didn’t get many innings last year. He was limited during the Bristol season due to mild forearm tightness, as the Pirates were being cautious with him. He finished the 2015 season with just 19.2 innings at the level, along with good strikeout numbers and poor control. The innings issue might not be an issue though, even if he’s likely to receive 100+ innings in 2016.
Keller pitched during extended Spring Training before the Bristol season began. He also pitched at the end of the season in the Fall Instructional League, making about 4-5 starts and going 3-4 innings in each start. Overall, he would have received at least 60 innings during the year, which makes it possible for him to get a full season workload in 2016. But he also worked on his body this off-season, getting stronger and in better shape.
That last part is a key to his other issues in the past. When you watch Keller, you see a special arm that doesn’t have a specified ceiling, but also an arm that needs some work in order to make sure the eventual ceiling is a high one. Keller has actually shown improvements since he’s entered the system, with much better command of his pitches now than in his GCL debut in 2014.
“I always knew I could throw strikes,” Keller said of his command. “It was just getting mechanical things down. Not so big with the arm upwards, and holding it stronger [in front of my chest].”
Pirates’ Minor League Pitching Coordinator Scott Mitchell noticed that Keller had a tendency to push his front arm out and swing it up during the start of his delivery. This didn’t lead to any consistency, and led to his control problems. You can see the differences in the images below.
Notice in this first clip, his arm drops down and does a loop before tucking back in on the drive to the plate. You can really notice this if you pay attention to the glove and see that it drops below his belt.
Here is a view of that from the side, and from the stretch.
This clip, taken last weekend, shows much less action on the front arm. The forearm stays strong through the delivery, and the delivery is actually more compact, with fewer moving parts. If you’re paying attention to the glove Keller still keeps it above the waist, rather than dropping it down. As a side note, he also lands much stronger, rather than having his back leg whipping around like the first two videos. This is probably because his whole body is under more control at the start of the delivery.
“[Mitchell] addressed it, and told me ‘you need to get the front side stronger’. So that really helped, and he’s been working with me a lot on that,” Keller said.
The command of the fastball has been a lot better in the last year. Keller’s delivery is much cleaner and easier now, and he still maintains velocity that routinely hits 95 MPH, which is impressive at his age (he turns 20 a few days before the 2016 minor league season begins).
Keller said that the bigger impact of the cleaned up delivery has come with his curveball.
“That’s the pitch you need the best timing on, and that really gets me timed up well,” Keller said. “I’m really confident right now, probably the most confident I’ve been in my whole career, throwing a curveball.”
Keller has plus velocity on the fastball, and a curveball that’s above-average and potentially a plus offering. The one thing he lacks is a changeup, but that’s something he’s added in the last year, finally settling on a grip before the 2015 season.
“It’s coming along really well,” Keller said. “Just been having the grip and keep going forward with it.”
That changeup will no doubt be a focus for him this year in West Virginia, along with maintaining the adjustment to his delivery and trying for better control with the easier approach. The Pirates have plenty of rotation options in the upper levels, but outside of Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon, they don’t have anyone who can be more than a number three starter. Keller is one of the best pitching prospects in the system below Double-A, and one of the few guys who has a shot to be more than a middle of the rotation starter. Continued progress on the delivery in West Virginia this year could go a long way toward reaching that upside.