ALTOONA, Pa. – There isn’t another prospect in the Pirates system with nearly as much hype as Mitch Keller. He has vaulted himself to the top of nearly every prospect list around, and he is being recognized as one of the most promising right-handed pitchers in the minors.
The funny part is that you could have easily replaced Keller’s name with Tyler Glasnow only a few years ago — both right-handed pitchers with dominating fastballs and curveballs. Both needed to commit to improving their changeup to be able to continue their rise through the minors.
Glasnow’s need for a changeup was much more important. He didn’t have the control that Keller had, and needed the third pitch to help when his fastball or curveball weren’t there. He also resisted throwing the pitch in games, or working to improve on the pitch until he struggled to make the jump to the majors.
Despite better control and better command of his stuff, the changeup is still important for Keller. He has also put a stronger and earlier focus on the pitch.
Facing eight lefties in his Altoona season debut, Keller needed that changeup to show up. It did. He only allowed two hits and struck out eight batters in his six innings of work. He threw 77 pitches with a pitch count still being watched carefully in the early season frigid temperatures.
“I was extremely impressed with the changeup and secondary pitches today,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said on Sunday after Keller’s start. “He kept them off-balanced rather than just throwing gas. For him to be able to mix speeds and mix his secondary pitches at the right time, it made for a good outing.”
Keller said after the game that he knew his changeup would be important while facing off against the left-handed dominant lineup. He was able to work backwards, using it as a first pitch, in early counts, during 3-1 counts, and more.
“Obviously, that’s a pitch I’ve been working on,” Keller said. “I’m at the point where I’m getting more confident in it and can throw it in any count that I want.”
There was an adjustment made with his changeup grip towards the end of last season that really seemed to help Keller get a better feel for the pitch. It almost immediately took a couple MPHs off of the pitch, but more importantly, the pitch has more depth to it than it ever has before.
“It’s just dropping off,” catcher Christian Kelley said after the game. “For a hitter, when it comes out of his hand, it just drops out. It looks like the bottom falls out, and they swing right over top of it.”
Kelley has caught Keller for parts of three seasons. He says that the grip change really helped Keller get a better feel for the pitch, making it a big weapon for the righty.
When asked about the biggest difference between last year to now, Kelley said that Keller’s off-speed pitches have developed greatly.
“He’s able to throw all three pitches for strikes — fastball, curveball, changeup,” Kelley said. “Hitters can’t really sit on that 95 MPH heater anymore. If he can consistently get the changeup and curveball over the plate, he’s a tough guy to hit.”
So, what’s the difference between the changeups for Keller and Glasnow? I’ve been lucky enough to cover both of these pitchers while in Altoona, and I can easily write that there are so many differences between the two.
In Altoona, you could almost count on one hand how many changeups Glasnow would throw in an outing. He could get any hitter out almost exclusively with his fastball and curveball, but he really didn’t make big improvements with his second off-speed pitch while pitching in Double-A.
Keller has taken the challenge of developing his changeup and tackled it head on. He made an adjustment last season right after his promotion to Altoona, and it has looked like an impressive pitch ever since. It starts in the same tunnel as his fastball, and hitters are struggling to recognize the pitch.
He hasn’t been afraid to throw the pitch in any count and in any situation, as he understands that the more he uses it, the better it will become. Right now, Keller’s changeup is lightyears ahead of where Glasnow’s was at this point. The pitch isn’t just a necessity; it is a weapon.
“As he gets to the upper levels, that’s what he’s going to have to do to have success, whether he goes to Triple-A or goes to the big leagues,” Ryan said. “For him to be willing to do it and accept it is impressive.”
Talk about the big leagues may not be too far down the road, either. As Tim Williams wrote during Spring Training, the Pirates may not be against an aggressive push for Keller to the Pirates in 2018. If his first outing of 2018 is any sign of things to come, Mitch Keller may force the Pirates’ hand.
Altoona Curve Notes
* Jason Martin will be active for Tuesday’s Curve game against Harrisburg. He had a foot issue that was still pretty sore, so they decided to hold him out for the opening series. He cleared all tests, so Michael Ryan said he will be ready to go.
* Jesus Liranzo, who was claimed by the Pirates off of waivers from the Dodgers, will need some time to be built up before being activated by the team. Ryan said that he’s only been able to play light catch in hotel parking lots and hasn’t faced a hitter in only two weeks. I’d expect him to be active with the Curve in a week or two.