BRADENTON, Fla. – Mitch Keller had a rough start to his outing today, giving up a long triple to Blue Jays prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr. The ball was hit off the handle of the bat, and Keller thought it would go for a routine fly out. Instead, it went off the left field wall with a lot of force.
“I thought that one that went off the fence was for sure a pop fly, and then I looked back and the left fielder was going after it,” Keller said.
Keller didn’t have many issues last year with opposing hitters challenging him, but saw a challenge today in the first inning. He settled down after that, switching to his off-speed more, but still working off the fastball. His approach last year was to work off the fastball until opposing hitters challenged him, and that often led to him using the fastball exclusively until the fourth inning, when he’d have to force himself to throw off-speed pitches. He might need to make that adjustment sooner as he moves up, as shown today.
“The fastball is obviously the main pitch,” Keller said. “Everything plays off of that. I’m going to have to start challenging myself, and hitters are going to start challenging me to mix off-speed in. I think after my first inning I did that. The hitters weren’t getting good barrels, and they were really off-balance after the first. So I was really pleased with that.”
Keller ended up throwing five innings, giving up two earned runs on five hits, with a walk and two strikeouts. Most of that damage came in the first inning. He threw 68 pitches, with 48 strikes, and was hitting as high as 96 MPH with his fastball. He should have one more outing after this, before getting ready for the regular season. He will start the year in Bradenton, looking to follow up on his breakout season from last year.
“I feel really good going into the season,” Keller said. “I figured some stuff out today. Just to be ready in the first inning, rather than the second inning. I feel really good. I’m excited by how it went today. I’m excited for the season.”
Jake Brentz Hits Triple Digits
The Pirates acquired two low-level pitching prospects in the Arquimedes Caminero deal last year. They added right-hander Pedro Vasquez, who is a right-handed starter that sits in the low-90s with his sinking fastball. They also added a hard throwing left-hander in Jake Brentz.
Brentz was hitting 96-97 MPH last year when I saw him after the trade. Today, that was the minimum in his one inning of work. The maximum was 100 MPH, which he hit on his fifth pitch of the game, throwing a first pitch strike in an at-bat that ended with a 97 MPH swinging strike that reached the catcher’s mitt when the batter started to swing.
The triple digit fastball was something that Brentz said he heard he did before, but today was the first time he could confirm it by seeing a chart and talking to the person operating the radar gun. Coincidentally, the person doing the charting was Taylor Hearn, another lower level left-hander who has hit 100 MPH.
Brentz will join Hearn in Bradenton this year, although his role will be pitching out of the bullpen, possibly going multi-innings when needed. He has the velocity you want to see, but his control is pretty bad, in part because he has only been a full-time pitcher for a few years. The velocity increase he showed has made him a guy to watch, even with the control problems.
“This offseason I worked a lot on mobility,” Brentz said. “That was a thing that was holding me back. It’s really just starting to trust myself a lot more and just throwing with some intent.”
The control issues will involve working on using his lower half and making sure his whole body is in sync during his delivery. It will also involve getting more comfortable on the mound and getting used to pitching in only his fourth full year as a full-time pitcher. He could end up being an interesting relief prospect if he can get his control to a point where his velocity would make him effectively wild.
Kuhl Goes Six Innings
Chad Kuhl made a start today in the High-A game, throwing six innings on 97 pitches. He had a few innings that were extended after he got three quick outs, getting four or five outs in some innings to extend his pitch count. He only walked one batter and struck out five, throwing 67 of his pitches for strikes and sitting 90-93 MPH.
Kuhl’s next start will be the second game in Montreal, and he’s not sure if he’ll pitch the third game of the series in Boston, or pitch in Pittsburgh during the home opening series.
“I’m excited for that,” Kuhl said on the Montreal start. “I think that they really love their baseball there. I think they miss their baseball there. I think it’ll be a really cool experience to get up there. If the fans are into, obviously it’s an exhibition game, but it’s going to be a really fun atmosphere. I’m really excited for it.”
Kuhl said that it was nice knowing his focus was on getting innings this year and getting ready for the season, rather than worrying about impressing and trying to win a spot. He’s had the inside track for the fourth starter role, but this was his second start at Pirate City, and that’s a good sign that he’s not really being evaluated as a guy who might not make the rotation. This has changed his development approach.
“Going out there and knowing my place, if the changeup gets hit, that was something I would have shied away from last year,” Kuhl said. “This year, I’ve been able to throw that in any count and any situation because you’re truly getting to work on it and getting that experience throwing it. Things like that, that maybe you have shied away from last year, you can really focus in on what needs to improve.”
Kuhl also got some work at the plate today, laying down a bunt and hitting a ground out to third. He and Jameson Taillon have been working in the cages lately, with Taillon getting a few at-bats in his start yesterday.
“It’s something that we’re really working on, saying, ‘If this can buy us another win throughout the season, let’s go, let’s do it,’” Kuhl said. “We’ve actually been doing a ton of work in the cages. I’m not saying it’s going to translate into the numbers but being able to fight in at-bats and be able to make it a little tougher on the pitcher can help ourselves out a little bit.”
**Matt Frawley was impressive today, sitting 91-94 MPH and keeping the ball down in the zone. He was a 17th round pick out of Purdue last year, and should pitch in West Virginia as a reliever who can get multiple innings.
**Pedro Vasquez and Cam Vieaux each threw five innings today in sim games. Both are being prepared for starting roles in A-ball. Vieaux should go to West Virginia, while Vasquez is slated for Bradenton.
**Stephen Meyer had some control problems today, missing wild behind one batter, and not showing the stuff that led to strong results last year in the second half. He should pitch out of the West Virginia bullpen.
**Alex McRae was getting some at-bats in the low-A game to prepare for hitting in the upper levels. He broke up a perfect game in the fifth inning with a single. After being lifted for a pinch runner, he came out of the game letting everyone on the team know that was how it’s done, and that it was that easy. He was more modest in the clubhouse after the game. “I got lucky,” McRae joked to me.