ALTOONA, Pa. – The Altoona Curve traveled to Bowie, Maryland on Tuesday evening to prepare for the first two games of the Eastern League Western Divisional Championship Series, which begins tonight against the Baysox. For the Curve, top prospect Mitch Keller will take the ball for game one of the series, as the Curve look to quickly get ahead in the five-game series.
Keller will be coming off of his best Double-A start to date, working six scoreless innings and only allowing three singles, all while striking out a new career-high 11 batters. He used all three of his pitches effectively — the fastball and curveball for a strikeout pitch, and a changeup that got four groundouts. Not only did Keller get through six innings cleanly, he was still pumping his fastball around 96-97 MPH late in the game, something that has not been the case for him so far while with the Curve.
“He kept the ball down and threw a really good breaking ball,” Altoona manager Michael Ryan said about Keller. “He mixed in his changeup and got his breaking ball over. He was very impressive and would’ve went seven if his spot didn’t come up in the lineup.”
Almost all of the runs scored against him in Double-A were in the last two innings of his starts. He has only allowed one earned run from innings one through four in his six starts (0.38 ERA, 24 innings); however, he has allowed 11 earned runs in the fifth inning and later (9.28 ERA, 10.2 IP). He consistently starts games strong; however, his last time out will hopefully serve as a blueprint to work more effectively through the entire course of a game.
“Nothing really mentality-wise changed between tonight and the other night,” Keller said after that start. “I just think I executed pitches better and mixed in my off-speed more. They were second guessing and had it in the back of their mind if I was throwing the changeup or curveball. They were going for strikes all night, and that was the difference.”
He later said that he had quick innings in the begin of the game, which, if you don’t, can really take a toll on a pitcher later in the game.
“I didn’t have that 20 or 30 pitch inning that I was getting sometimes,” he said. “People don’t really see how many you threw in the first or the second, and that really just makes you tired later in the game.”
All of that is behind him now, as his last start put a bow on the regular season portion of his 2017 campaign, posting a 3.12 ERA in six starts for the Curve after his promotion from Bradenton. He went 34.2 innings and struck out 45 batters, good for a 11.7 K/9 ratio. His WHIP had a slight increase after his promotion to Double-A, going from 0.996 in Bradenton to 1.038 in Altoona; however, the majority of those walks and hits came late in outings when it was obvious that Keller was tiring. Batters had a .197 average against him in Double-A this season.
Now, all of those numbers are wiped clean, as Keller readies for the Eastern League playoffs.
“I’m definitely excited,” Keller said after his last start. “We just want it to get here now so we can get started and get rolling. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
He said that finishing his regular season on such a high note gives him plenty of confidence going into tonight’s start against Bowie.
“Seeing all three pitches work the best I have all season,” Keller said. “It’s a lot of fun knowing I have that going for me.”
Playing in the playoffs is an important development step for those coming through a minor league system. Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington said that playing in the minor league playoffs is a great way to gain experience, challenge maturity, and test preparedness. Behind actually being in the majors and playing internationally in winter ball, Huntington thinks that any sort of playoff experience is the best way for a player to grow.
“For Mitch, it’s an opportunity to go out in must-win situation, control his adrenaline, and control his emotions,” Huntingdon said about Keller pitching in the playoffs for the Curve. “Just go out and pitch like it’s a Tuesday night in April, shut down the opposition, and help his team win a championship.”
Keller will use his experience from pitching for the Marauders in the playoffs last year as a learning tool going into his game one start.
“I’ll use that to my advantage,” Keller said about last year’s experience. “Keep the guys in the game as long as I can. Eat up as many innings as I can and keep the score low. Throw strikes and pound the zone.”
Not only one, or possibly multiple, starts in the Eastern League playoffs, Keller will pitch in the Florida Instructional League then head to Arizona with three of his current Curve teammates to pitch for the Glendale Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League. He still has plenty of baseball left in 2017.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Keller said about his selection to the AFL. “Pitching against all these guys around the league that are really good. It’s going to be a blast.”
Huntington said that the Pirates are sending Keller to the AFL to lengthen his season and to build upon some innings that he missed earlier in the year while pitching for Bradenton.
“The opportunity to go and compete against some of the best prospects in baseball, to continue to lengthen his season, and to continue to add to his pitch count as he continues his progression,” Huntington gave as reasons to send Keller.
Keller Makes a Late Season Adjustment to His Changeup
Not only for the reasons that Huntington stated above, but Keller knows that one of the main things he will need to work on this fall is his changeup. Just a few weeks ago when Keller made the jump from High-A to Double-A, he worked with Senior Pitching Coordinator Scott Mitchell, Minor League Pitching Coordinator Justin Meccage, and his new pitching coach Bryan Hickerson on a new changeup grip. Keller used to hold his changeup with a four-seam grip; however, he recently made the changed it to a two-seam grip “to get some more depth” on the pitch. In addition to depth, it will allow Keller to possibly take a few MPH off of the pitch, giving him more separation between his fastball and changeup.
His changeup is currently sitting in the low-90s, which is still pretty effective when he is throwing 96 or 97 MPH fastballs. His goal is to get it back into the 80s with the grip change. The results have been good so far, as he has used it since he arrived in Altoona. During his last start — and before I knew about the adjustment — I was extremely impressed with how his changeup looked, giving me credence to ask about the pitch more specifically. Batters have been getting out in front of the pitch thinking it is a fastball, then they have been rolling over to the infield.
“Just what I saw tonight — a lot of swing and misses and ground balls on it,” Keller talked about his changeup after his last start. “Hopefully, it will slow it down here soon. I’m not really worried about that now. I’m just working on getting the depth and swings and misses with it now.”
“It’s going to be a huge thing for me in the fall league. Being able to consistently throw that like I did tonight.”
He said that more of a velocity change should come as he throws the newly gripped changeup more often. Combined with pitch efficiency and facing more talented hitters, he also knows that the pitch is going to be a strong point of emphasis for him while in Arizona.
“It’s kind of obvious what I need to do to pitch in the big leagues.”
For now, Keller is focused on the Bowie Baysox and their talented lineup in game one of the Eastern League Western Divisional Championship Series. It’s another great test for the talented righty. The hope is that he’ll be able to pitch for another championship ring next week.