What Has Led to Mitch Keller’s Breakout So Far This Year?

CHARLESTON, WV – I had a lot of chances to watch Mitch Keller in his first two years in pro ball. After the Pirates drafted him, and signed him to a $1 M bonus as a second round pick, he went to the Gulf Coast League. The following year, he spent half the season in Bradenton in extended Spring Training.

What I saw during those two years was a young kid with a lively fastball that touched mid-90s effortlessly, along with a curve that was a plus offering when it was on. What he lacked was a changeup and command of his pitches at times, with the latter leading to 29 walks in 47 innings coming into the 2016 season.

You could see the talent there, and with a few adjustments, Keller had the chance to be a very special pitcher, with one of the highest upsides in the lower levels of the Pirates’ system.

What I’ve seen so far this year, including while watching Keller’s start on Wednesday, is a guy who is starting to become that special pitcher.

Keller had his worst start of the season on Wednesday, but that comes with the disclaimer that his “worst” start saw him giving up two runs on five hits and one walk in six innings, while striking out five. The walk was his first of the year in 21 innings, which is a far cry from his previous numbers. For my full recap of the game and Keller’s start, check out Wednesday’s Prospect Watch. Here is a quick video of a few of his strikeouts.

https://youtu.be/nvjhEbv1cG4

Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington was also in attendance to watch Keller, and I got his opinion after the outing.

“The fastball plays in the zone,” Huntington said. “A lot of swing and misses today. The first run is a couple of well placed hits. He showed a really good curveball, a changeup in the making. You love the ease with which he does it. You love how he pounds the zone and is aggressive and attacks. Very, very encouraging signs.”

That’s good praise from the General Manager of the organization. But how did Keller suddenly get to this point? What changed that took him from a guy with great stuff and poor command, to a guy that possibly looks like one of the best young pitching prospects in baseball less than a year later?

Part of the change in the command is Keller’s approach, with West Virginia Manager Brian Esposito noticing a change since the Fall Instructional League and Spring Training.

“The thing that I noticed the most, from Spring Training and the Instructional League to where he is right now, is the intensity of his focus,” Esposito said. “When he comes off the mound, he’s a guy who is intense, focused. He sits on the bench, he evaluates what he did that inning, takes that into account, and re-establishes his focus and intensity. Takes it back out to the mound, he goes back out there and competes.”

Keller echoed those thoughts when I talked with him, discussing how his mindset has changed in attacking hitters, and having more confidence in his stuff. Esposito also noted that Keller has developed a shorter memory, not letting a bad inning or a few bad at-bats derail his outing.

“He doesn’t dwell on the past,” Esposito said. “He doesn’t look past what he needs to take care of at that specific moment. He just has all the components to be a big league pitcher, and he understands what he needs to do, and he does it.”

The improved command hasn’t all been about his mindset, but has also involved a change in mechanics. I wrote about this during Spring Training, pointing out how Keller has made an adjustment to clean up his delivery, removing some action on his front arm, and preventing it from dropping down and throwing off his delivery. (Check out that article for a detailed breakdown of Keller’s mechanical changes, with GIFs.)

“That was the main thing that’s been really helping me get better location and a lot more power on the pitches,” Keller said of the change. “It feels a lot easier, too.”

Despite having better command of his fastball, things are still far from perfect. Keller gets by at this level on his stuff, and if he misses with his fastball, he can get away with mistakes. He also shows a lot of maturity at his age, knowing that this is going on.

“I think right now, if I do miss with my fastball, hitters are still a little late on it,” Keller said. “That’s going to catch up to me here in a little bit. So hitting my spots and getting in that area — I don’t get lucky, but I get kind of lucky I guess, that they don’t hit [mistakes] for base hits or doubles.”

One other big development for Keller this year is an improved changeup. He didn’t have much of a changeup coming into pro ball, which is common for prep pitchers with his stuff. He struggled to find the right grip in his first few years in pro ball. The circle change didn’t work, because his hand was too small to hold the ball with that grip. He eventually settled on a three finger fastball, holding the ball with his middle three fingers, and the thumb and pinky on the sides.

That grip only took him so far, and the changeup was coming in at 89 MPH, which didn’t offer a lot of separation from his fastball, especially in the later innings when he drops down to 92-93 MPH. It also didn’t have a lot of movement, making it even more difficult to separate from the fastball. So this year, Keller switched to a new two-finger grip, holding the ball with his middle and ring finger, with his index and pinky fingers on the sides of the ball. The result is that his changeup is now coming in around 85-86 MPH, and has more movement.

“It’s got really good movement on it now,” Keller said. “I moved my hand over a little bit, so it’s not a three finger fastball anymore. It’s like an actual changeup grip.”

The biggest challenge now is finding time to throw the pitch in games. Keller can already get away with missing on his fastball at this level, so there’s not much need to go to his third pitch.

“When hitters are so far behind on the fastball, you need to find spots to throw the changeup,” Keller said. “It’s tough sometimes.”

Despite this, Keller is finding ways to use the changeup. In Wednesday’s outing, he threw a few later in the game, including some first pitch changeups. He has taken the same approach in previous starts, and Esposito credits him for knowing the importance of developing that pitch.

“As a starter in the big leagues, regardless of what the velocity of your fastball is, you need that changeup,” Esposito said. “You need to be able to throw those three pitches. His changeup is going to be the equalizer for his fastball, and his development is on its way right now, because he’s using it, and he understands why he has to use it and why he needs to develop it. That’s half the battle, when you try to get a young kid to understand how important his changeup development is, and he recognizes that.”

Keller will spend the entire season in West Virginia. The Pirates take this approach with young pitchers, getting them used to throwing in full season ball. It’s easier to reduce their innings per start at the end of the year at this level than it is in Bradenton, where the bullpen would be blown up by such a move. From here, he would definitely go to Bradenton in 2017, and then if the command and changeup developments continue progressing well, he could be on the fast track to the big leagues from there, possibly arriving at some point in 2019, with a very slim chance that he arrives in 2018 if things go exceptionally well.

That’s a long way from now, leaving plenty of time for Keller to develop. This year, his development could lead to him being recognized as one of the top young pitching prospects in all of baseball, which is a great thing. The Pirates will be graduating Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon at some point this year, and having a guy like Keller emerging at the lower levels is a huge luxury, adding just another potential top of the rotation arm to the system.

  • Terrific stuff, really nice article on a really interesting player going forward.

  • What a fantastic article. Just excellent. I had the Keller article from ST bookmarked, and now this one too.

    The only point I’ll disagree with is your last one. The ’14 HS arms were and still are vitally important to the long-term health of this organization. By the time Keller would reasonably graduate – if he even makes it that far- Gerrit Cole will be gone and Taillon/Glasnow, in the best case, will be entering arbitration. Keller is *exactly* the type of emergence this org needs to be sustainable.

    • The only reason I say it’s a luxury is because most teams would kill for that situation, having three home grown top of the rotation guys in the rotation for a long stretch, including a potential top of the rotation guy coming up from the minors to replace the other ace who is a pending free agent.

  • Great analysis and very informative. Articles like this are why I love this site so much.

  • You hit a great point at the end. Not only does Keller have the chance to develop into a good major-league starting pitcher, but his timeline for arrival (2019ish) is such that it could help keep the window of competition open for the Pirates. (Obviously, it takes more than one pitcher to have a window.) For example, Cole is under control through 2019, and if he doesn’t sign an extension, Keller (if he progresses) could help ease the loss. For a small-market team like the Pirates who can’t use free agency to fill holes, that’s crucial.

    • Scott Kliesen
      April 29, 2016 6:50 pm

      I see your point, but…

      Pirates can and do use FA to fill holes. Just because they don’t pay obscene amounts of money on these FA deals, doesn’t mean the players they do sign don’t fill holes.

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