ALTOONA, Pa. – In his first two Double-A starts, Mitch Keller twice faced Trenton, easily the best team in the league with a 79-42 record, and allowed two runs on five hits in six innings both times.
In both of those starts, Keller was tagged with two runs in one of his later innings. In his first start two Sundays ago, his manager Michael Ryan said that he just seemed to take an inning off, allowing multiple hits in a row to give up the two runs. Last time out, Keller left one curveball up in the zone which was driven deep for a double, then a seeing-eye single on the ground brought runs home. Other than just those couple at-bats in the sixth, Keller was extremely good in his second start/home debut.
“He’s had good, quality starts with us,” Ryan said. “He’s just really good, and he knows how to pitch. I’m not saying this is surprising, but his presence out there is like he’s been here for a while already. It’s fun to watch him pitch.”
Ryan, who first said that Keller has “electric stuff”, defined the word “presence” as looking like he belongs, confident, in control of the game with nothing phasing him, and steady.
Keller had that presence and did not look intimidated at all on the mound facing off against such a potent offensive team in his first two Double-A starts.
“It’s tough when you make your Double-A debut with two starts against the best team in the league, but he handled it well,” Ryan said. “It just shows how confident he is and how he trusts his stuff. He did very good against a great team.”
Keller agreed that having good mound presence and not being intimidated by a new level and good team is extremely important for a pitcher.
“If you don’t have good mound presence, you’re already a step behind the hitter,” Keller said following his second start for the Curve. “They would see you as a candidate to get a hit off of. Good mound presence is intimidating. Having that is a huge step.”
But, mound presence isn’t necessary something that Keller has always had. It is something that he has needed to work on a lot as a professional, saying that he would easily get flustered by one at-bat and let it carry on to the next batter. It would be a downward spiral from that point forward. Fortunately for Pirates’ fans, Keller has greatly improved on keeping his emotions in check.
“Actually, it’s something I’ve had to work on a lot,” Keller said. “Working on my emotions has been a huge thing for me since being in pro ball. It’s been a great thing for me to be able to handle situations like that when things aren’t going your way.”
He could have easily let those emotions get the best of him during these first two starts. Instead, he was admirable in his first start and improved even more during his second start, striking out nine batters without walking any. At home against the Thunder, it looked like he was putting on a clinic at times with his fastball and curveball. The fastball topped out at 98 MPH, blowing it by some of the best hitters in the league. Also, his curveball was crossing up batters all afternoon, mixing it up within the zone and in the dirt. The opposition checked their swing multiple times for strike calls, and they simply couldn’t figure out what Keller was going to do next.
Asked what he can take from these first two starts, Keller responded that he’s not quite comfortable yet, but he feels like he can compete and pitch at the Double-A level.
With about three weeks and four starts left in the season for the righty (not including possible playoff starts), Keller said that his goal is to go as deep into games as possible, continuing to pound the strike zone like he was in Florida. His manager wants him to continue to learn how to prepare for starts and for the opposition’s lineups. He also said that Keller needs to take momentum from 2017 into 2018, which will certainly be a huge year for the Pirates’ top pitching prospect.
“End the season on a good note for him,” Ryan said. “Take that momentum into the off-season and be ready to go next year. These are all good things for him moving forward.”
Pittsburgh is only a 97 mile trip down bumpy Route 22 away from Altoona, and the pressures can start to mount on players who begin to see to light at the end of the tunnel too soon. For Keller, those pressures were cast into the Florida Gulf Coast long ago.
“I think it just makes it more fun now,” Keller said about being one step closer to his ultimate goal. “It was fun down there [in Florida], but it’s a new level now. It’s a blast being this close.”