GLENDALE, Ariz. – Mitch Keller was drafted in the second round of the 2014 draft. At the time, he wasn’t seen as a future top of the rotation option, at least not any more than your normal projectable pitcher out of high school. He came into pro ball and quickly impressed, but clearly had things to work on with his control, and didn’t have top velocity yet.
Keller added that two years later in his breakout season in West Virginia. The velocity increased to the upper 90s, and the control was straightened out after an adjustment to keep his glove arm steady. That took him from just another talented prep pitcher to a guy who was on the radar as a future top of the rotation starter.
The journey didn’t end there. Keller has continued working on improving his game, and continues to find new ways to do so. During the 2017 season, he focused on learning when to use his off-speed pitches, while also making a late-season adjustment to his changeup grip. The results took him a few steps closer toward being a future top of the rotation guy, while also looking like a safer option for future MLB success than most pitching prospects.
Keller’s work has continued in the Arizona Fall League, where I got a chance to see him last week. He gave up two runs in four innings of work, with the runs coming on a two-run homer to Atlanta hitting prospect Ronald Acuna. The pitch wasn’t a bad one for Keller, thrown outside and up out of the zone. Acuna was able to reach out and take it the other way, putting it right over the wall into the right field bullpen in a good display of hitting.
Pirates minor league pitching coordinator Justin Meccage was in attendance, and got a chance to see Keller’s start.
“I thought he did a good job,” Meccage said. “He mixed his pitches. Made some good behind in the count off-speed pitches. His changeup has really come a long ways. And that’s really his focus. That, and some intentional elevation. Things like that, and pitching in a little bit. I thought he was really good.”
When I talked to Keller after the start, he also mentioned that his changeup was a big focus in this showcase league. He made an adjustment to his grip while with Altoona, going to a circle changeup grip. That’s an interesting adjustment, since one of the first conversations I had with Keller back in 2014 involved the changeup, and how he couldn’t hold the ball with the circle grip, since his hands weren’t big enough. Keller found a way to make it work, adjusting how he was holding the ball.
“I think it comes down to the grip,” Meccage said. “He switched it up. Sometimes the ball in the hand, because of the way the seams are located, it feels bigger in your hand. He was going more of a traditional four seam circle. He’s adjusted that a little bit, so now it feels better in his hand.”
Keller went to a “two-seamish” type grip on the changeup, which was more comfortable. That comfort didn’t add trust though. At least not right away.
“When I first started using the new grip in Double-A, it was tough,” Keller said. “I didn’t really trust it much. I just kept throwing it and I got more comfortable with it. It’s the same thing with the curveball. Some days it’s on, some days it’s off. I’m just trying to limit the off days with it.”
Things changed for the pitch a few weeks before the Altoona playoffs. He started seeing more results, especially with weak contact and increased ground balls. That increased his usage of the pitch.
“A couple of weeks before the playoffs I got really comfortable with it,” Keller said. “In the playoffs I used it a lot, which helped a lot. I think seeing results and seeing swings and misses with it really made my confidence go up with it. I really like throwing it now.”
Keller said that the AFL gives him a chance to see where the new pitch plays out against the top level guys. So far, the results have been positive.
“I think he’s found something,” Meccage said. “I do think he sold out to the fact that it’s an important pitch for him. That’s probably 90 percent of the battle when you get that, and they take ownership, and all of a sudden you start seeing big strides like this right now.”
I caught up with Pirates Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway, who hadn’t seen Keller in the AFL yet, but saw him at the end of the year in Altoona.
“We’ve seen a little more action out of it,” Broadway said. “Be able to get ground balls with it, some run and sink to it. He throws it with conviction and good arm speed. It’s not a big separation, velocity-wise, but there is different movement from the fastball.”
An improved changeup only helps Keller with one of his goals throughout the 2017 season, and that is learning when to throw his secondary stuff. At the start of the year in Bradenton, Keller would throw nothing but fastballs the first few innings. Opposing lineups started to catch on, and did more damage against that approach than Keller saw while throwing nothing but fastballs in West Virginia. He found that he needed to mix in the secondary stuff earlier, so that opposing hitters couldn’t cheat on the one pitch.
“I think that’s why this league is really good for him,” Meccage said. “These guys are all hunting fastballs. They can all hit fastballs, just like they can in the big leagues. It forces him to number one be a little bit more quality with his fastball location, and number two, opportunity for times to maybe pitch backwards if he needs to. And then number three, behind in the count, maybe the changeup. That’s why this is perfect for him, especially when it comes to that stuff, secondary development.”
The adjusted approach for Keller was almost like flipping a switch. I noticed the problem after two bad starts early in the season. When I saw Keller a few weeks later, he was already throwing more off-speed stuff early in the game, leading to much better results.
“He bought in, and he’s continued to work on getting secondary over early in the count, and being able to get guys off his fastball, and mixing in the changeup now,” Broadway said. “Allowed him to get some action on the pitch, and get a ground ball when he needs it. He’s learning.”
The Pirates have been aggressive with Keller’s movement through the system. It’s normal for them to send prep pitchers to West Virginia after a year in short-season ball. But Keller was the first to get promoted during the season, going up and helping Bradenton win a championship in 2016. He did the same thing in 2017, going up to Altoona at the end of the year and helping to win a title.
“He obviously went up there and did a good job pitching big games, and helped that team win a ring,” Broadway said of Keller’s time in Altoona. “In back-to-back years he’s gone up to help win a ring. He’s a competitor, and he’s polished. He’s continuing to just refine his weapons. His stuff has been there, and the ability to throw it over and move the ball around the zone has been there. It’s just a matter of getting reps and continuing the finishing school for him.”
Keller now finds himself in the AFL, which is an assignment that can only help keep him on the fast track. He should start back in Altoona at the start of the 2018 season, but will almost certainly make it to Indianapolis, possibly by mid-season. Depending on how he pitches, that could put him in line for the majors at some time during the 2018 season. If that doesn’t happen, the 2019 season will be when we see him arrive, ready to give the Pirates another potential top of the rotation option.