Mitch Keller Remains on the Fast Track After Improvements to His Changeup

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.

  • Better yet this kid is a polite, classy young man. Every once in a while an athlete comes along who transcends into star player/leader/fan favorite. I had the pleasure of meeting him in Morgantown and mark my word…he is going to be special.

    • That’s good to hear! He seems mature and composed. I like that some of his best performances have been in big games (at least by minor league standards). Seems like his intangibles, even little things like body language, are up to the same high standards as his arm talent.

    • When I first saw Keller in Altoona, I was actually surprised at his size, and the relatively easy delivery of that fastball. He has some room to grow with his height and frame.

  • Tim,

    You still think there is decent chance Keller gets fasttracked for 2nd half callup in 2018 if he has continued success at Altoona and Indy and progresses with changeup?

    • I could see it happening. He doesn’t have anything drastic to work on. I don’t think it will happen, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he starts in Indianapolis next year. That’s how aggressive I think they could be with him.

      • Do the Pirates currently have 5 starting pitcher in the organization that are better than Keller?

  • Ran into John Jaso at my homebrewing and hydroponics store yesterday. He was picking up some lights for his garden. Really nice guy. Literally the only Pirate I’ve ever talked to other than Bill Mazeroski who is from the same hometown as me.

      • He even said he wants to come guest bartend at the store when the brewery part has it’s grand opening. He’s getting ready right now to go sail his boat for a month he said. We talked a little about analytics in the game and he said while it’s important to the modern game a lot of the numbers guys probably wouldn’t be able to play a game of catch. Ha! …and yes he still has the dreds. Oh, and I forgot I did meet Joey Bats at a total wine in Tampa last Thanksgiving. I was doing a liquor demo for the distillery I worked at and said “Hello, Jose Bautista, loved you with the Pirates.” He snubbed me. I’m not really a star struck type or guy that gets in someone’s face and I don’t even go up to someone ever but it was my job in this case. Bautista was an impolite dick. I’m sure no one here is surprised at all by that.

        • It took me like 2 mins to realize the one on the right was Kurt Russell.

        • “a lot of the numbers guys probably wouldn’t be able to play a game of catch”

          horseshit stereotyping. And besides, irrelevant to whether “numbers guys” know what they are talking about.

          • I think you have to give a guy like Jaso, who clearly *values* analytics, more credit than that gut reaction.

            I don’t know what field you’re in, but if it’s any sort of professional service I’d imagine there’s at least some disconnect between practice and academia. How many Fortune 500 companies would hand over operations to a business professor without practical experience running a company? Zero, right?

            What if this is really what Jaso is saying? That you can “know what you’re talking about” while at the same time have no clue how to actually apply that knowledge. Seems like that’s an area the Pirates have specifically tried to bridge with Mike Fitzgerald before losing him to the Diamondbacks.

          • Says you about a guy who was in the league. He wasn’t trashing them across the board, just making a funny statement. It kind of reminded me of the William shattner sketch where he asks the treckies if they ever kissed a girl.

          • ” he said while it’s important to the modern game…”

        • What’s the store?

          • Avid Brewing and Growing in St Pete. 1st Ave S and 17st. Actually a brewery too but in hiatus while renovating to become 5 barrel system. Will be small enough to do a lot of creative things including using stuff they grow in the beer. http://www.avidbrew.com/

        • The correct response to Bautista was clearly to chug a sample of liquor and then bat flip the little cup in his face. 😉

    • Lights for his “garden”? Yea, I really believe that.

  • Fantastic work, Tim. Keller’s almost too good to draw comment.

    Makes me dream on what could’ve been if the org changed Glasnow’s grip in AA instead of this spring. Meccage said it best about the changeup, “I think it comes down to the grip”. Great development by Meccage and Mitchell continues. At this point, it would just be awkward for Jim Benedict to come back as their subordinate.

    • This is the quote that I felt was most important:

      “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.”

      When talking about Glasnow, that’s the key. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had a new grip or not. He didn’t stress the changeup until last offseason. Then he started throwing it more and working on it, and eventually found a grip that worked for him.

      The majority of people I talk with about the changeup have a similar story. They don’t just find a comfortable grip then start throwing it. They start throwing it and working on it, and in that process they end up finding a grip that works for them.

      Glasnow didn’t make strides until he realized that he needed that pitch, even with the old grip. Then, once he “sold out” to the pitch, he was open to improvements, which is where the new grip came in.

      • To think what Glasnow could have returned between 2014-2016…

        • How can a small market team deal away what appeared at the time to be a difference making franchise type player? Haven’t you noticed how quickly the team has regressed to mediocrity once Cutch and Cole stopped performing like an MVP/Cy Young type players?

          These type players are essential to both large and small market teams, but only large market teams can go out and buy them on the open market. As such, small market teams have to hold onto them and pray they reach their ceiling.

          • The old saying, know your own prospects better than anyone else.

            While Glasnow’s *upside* was undeniable, did we really properly account for risk? What was ever the realistic probability of reaching that upside, and what does he look like if he doesn’t get there?

            With a kid as advanced as Keller, you really are talking about unexpected serious injury or regression that would keep him from being *at least* a #4, likely #3. With Glasnow’s command and repertoire, you always had the very real risk – maybe even probability? – of him becoming a reliever, if not busting completely.

            It would take an incredibly advantageous situation to trade somebody with the upside *and* floor of Keller, but if you’re not willing to trade a prospect as risky as Glasnow then you’re really saying that you’re not trading *any* valuable prospect. And that’s fine!

        • As a stand alone prospect in a deal he would not have returned as much as you seem to think

          • You really should educate yourself more or stop commenting

            • Hilarious coming from Mr. Know it all. I’ve seen every one of the players you think you know about many more times than you. Try getting up to speed on deals for prospects.

      • I don’t discredit what Meccage said there at all, I really just disagree on where you place the emphasis on the chicken and egg part of this.

        Try this exercise: apply the same logic to literally any other aspect of pitching development. Tell a player to “sell out” to throwing a slider with a grip that doesn’t work, and expect him to be confident in that pitch and for it to just get better? Tell a pitcher to throw offline in order to improve command, and expect him to buy in completely when it inevitably doesn’t work? Nobody would argue in favor of this. Nobody would argue practicing bad habits would lead to success, and ultimately confidence.

        With Keller, he rarely threw the old changeup. The old changeup was bad. He was taught the new grip, which worked, and only *then* you saw the type of increased usage and refinement that we’re seeing in the AFL.

        Glasnow was similar, just two years delayed. He absolutely did not “buy in” to the pitch at Keller’s stage of development, but he also didn’t have a grip that worked. Fast forward to this spring when Meccage showed him the 2-seam change that produced the kind of movement you’re seeing from Keller, and all the sudden Glasnow “buys in” to the pitch and throws it more.

        I don’t discredit what Meccage is saying whatsoever, but this comes down to having the fundamental building blocks for success already in place. And with the changeup, that’s all about grip.

        Having the experience of learning the pitch myself decades ago, and then researching and teaching it to kids later, I really can’t be swayed on this. It’s something that may be tough to understand if you’ve never actually felt what it’s like to throw a changeup, but it’s the type of pitch that just clicks. A million bad reps with a grip that doesn’t produce the intended effect won’t improve the pitch a bit.

        • It’s definitely chicken and the egg, but here is why the other side of that argument makes more sense.

          First, a few points about your timelines on Keller/Glasnow:

          Keller threw his changeup before this switch. He knew the importance of the pitch. The only times he wasn’t throwing it was when he was throwing nothing but fastballs. He then started throwing more off-speed early in the game, and that included the changeup. This was in Bradenton, before he got the new grip in Altoona.

          Glasnow didn’t have the buy-in this spring once he got the new grip (that one came from Scott Mitchell). He had it last fall and over the winter with the old grip. He realized that he needed the pitch and started working on it with the old grip. It was only in spring — while he was throwing it at a greatly increased rate in flat grounds and bullpen sessions — that he was given the new grip that worked.

          Your theory about the changeup makes sense. A guy doesn’t have a comfortable grip, so he doesn’t throw the changeup. No amount of throwing will help improve the pitch until he finds that comfortable grip.

          What I’ve seen happen over and over is that the pitcher will never find the grip that works for him if he doesn’t see the importance in the changeup. Keller knew it was important, and worked on it, even with a bad grip. That led to him eventually making a switch. Glasnow finally realized it was important, and that led to him seeking to make it better, which eventually led to the new grip.

          Your side of the chicken and egg debate says that the player can throw the pitch until his arm falls off, but will never improve until he finds that grip that works for him. As we saw with Glasnow, this isn’t what happens. If the player isn’t buying in, he’s not throwing the pitch at all, and won’t even get to the point where he seeks out the new grip, or is open to the idea of a new grip.

          What I’ve seen with Keller, Glasnow, and many others, is that they need to focus on improving the pitch, and realizing the importance. That is followed by experimentation for improvements, and eventually finding a grip that works.

          • I can appreciate that, thanks for the reply.

            In this case, it comes down to a developmental disagreement for me.

            “If the player isn’t buying in, he’s not throwing the pitch at all, and won’t even get to the point where he seeks out the new grip, or is open to the idea of a new grip.”

            This is far too much of a laissez faire approach to development for my taste. At some point it must be the responsibility of the organization to step in and offer help (new grip, that works), or make “buying in” a developmental check. Make it so the player does not have a choice.

            Changeups – hell, all pitches – start with flat ground work. Playing catch. That’s where grip experimentation takes place. It seems too coincidental to me that the org could struggle so much to develop the changeup under Benedict only to immediately see a number of arms take steps forward – with new grips – under Meccage/Mitchell.

            Either way, it seems the org is in a much better place now and that’s really all that matters. Thanks for the conversation!

            • That’s tough to do. They did that with Taillon and Glasnow. They forced each player to throw X amount of changeups per start in the lower levels, before AAA.

              Taillon actually did that, and worked on the pitch. Glasnow did it for a start or two, then abandoned it. Unless they have the ability to go out on the mound and force Glasnow to throw a pitch, they are limited in what they can do.

              And when thinking about how others have responded to changeup development, the issue here is clear that it’s Glasnow and not the development process. If it’s development, then there’s no way to explain for the same approach working for guys like Taillon and Keller. The variable here is that Glasnow is the one who showed no interest in the changeup, and refused to work on it until last fall.

              As for people changing their grips now, there really isn’t anything different going on.

              This past spring, Glasnow changed his grip to something that worked better. Taillon changed his as well, but only to match the change he made to his two seam fastball. I noticed both of those, and wrote about them early in Spring Training.

              Right after that, the Trib asked every pitcher after every outing if they have a new changeup. Some pitchers like Kuhl mentioned they were trying new things, but that’s normal. I think the only other news that was broken was that Kuhl also had a new changeup. I had that news a few weeks earlier, but I thought it was old news, since he adjusted things the year before, and I thought that’s what he was referencing.

              Kuhl’s adjustment was your normal development adjustment. Keep throwing it and keep mixing it up until you find something that works. It’s the same with Keller and all other minor leaguers, and this existed under Benedict as well.

              It’s just that this year there were two high profile cases of new changeup grips, and the Trib created a narrative about it, to the point where they literally pissed everyone off asking about the pitch. I was going to do a breakdown article on the changeup as a pitch, but they went with the “Pirates are putting a new focus on the changeup” angle, and people thought I was doing the same thing and shut down. Maybe I’ll use all of the stuff I have later.

              But there was no real change to the approach. There were just two high profile cases of an adjustment to the pitch, with Glasnow being a big story because he finally realized the importance of the pitch. That’s something that he said himself in my articles.

    • Glasnow might have not had as many problems if they had not have tried to round off the ” rough edges ” he had in AA also

  • It is great to read how well Keller is doing but it also raises the readers expectations that he is a can’t miss pitching prospect. Until the player achieves success in the majors they are all suspects/prospects. I think we need to temper the environment the site is creating for him. Remember Glasnow, was once considered a potential number 1 starter and we are still waiting for that to happen. One thing I like about Keller is that he willing to change to succeed.

    • There’s no such thing as a can’t miss pitching prospect.

      But there’s also a big gap between a risky option with a lot of upside like Glasnow, and the term “can’t miss”. Keller falls somewhere in that big gap, far from Glasnow, but not close to “can’t miss”.

      • Congrats to Charlie Morton, who finally found it after numerous trips to the DL, changes in his style, etc. At age 34 he understood what it took to win and applied it in relief to help Houston to the WS Championship. So, lets be patient with some of our younger pitching talent that struggles to understand the big picture.

        Somebody in Houston believed in him to give him another chance, and they allowed him to throw the FB that suddenly got up to 96, and as many curves (28%) as his arm could handle. And somewhere he found the Command to throw them both for unhittable strikes whenever he needed to make a good pitch.

        • To be fair, Morton always had a good curve, it was just underutilized while in a Pirates uniform. The added fastball velocity just made it okay up that much more.

          • Maybe his curve was “underutilized” due to being on the DL so often. His one season in Philadelphia did nothing to change that orginization’s expectations for him either.

    • Keller is a completely different type pitcher than Glasnow.

  • It is interesting that, if he continues his progress, he would probably get to AAA mid-2018 and be ready for MLB at the beginning on 2019.

    That would put NH in an awkward position of explaining what exactly Keller is “working on” until Super 2 deadline.

  • When you say not a big separation velocity-wise, does that mean it’s in low-90s?

    Extremely excited to see Keller trusting the pitch and mixing it well. Seems like he easily adapts to new environment and doesn’t get too frustrated over new challenges.

  • Tim,

    Do you project Keller to slot into a number 1 or 2 guy, or a solid 3

    • I typically don’t give specifics for prospects. I go with a top of the rotation guy (1-2), back of the rotation guy (4-5) or I’ll say a number three if a guy projects in between. Keller would be a top of the rotation guy.

    • i feel like it’s tough to “slot” any pitching prospect as a 1 or 2. Sooooo many guys with ace talent just become #3s and 4s.

      Just the way i personally think about prospects… you assume no higher than #3 until they perform better than a 3 in the majors.

      Of course you can place an ace *upside* on a guy, but assigning a 1 or 2 “future slot” on every prospect with that upside is just going to get us all disappointed more often than not.

      of course Keller has 1-2 upside. but it’s just so tough to assume that any prospect will reach their upside.

      i prefer pleasant surprises to disappointment.

      Except for the transcendent guys. Strasburg, basically.

      I’m basically saying that we need to be sure we can separate a guy’s ceiling from his likely outcome in our heads.

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