ALTOONA, Pa. – Most top prospects experience a bump in the road at some point during their ascension to the major leagues. That was no different for Mitch Keller. Fortunately, those “learning experiences” only lasted a short time, and Keller is now one step closer to his final goal of reaching Pittsburgh.
During six starts between April 28th and May 26th, Keller posted a 4.63 ERA in 35 IP. Opponents were batting .267 with a .834 OPS against him, numbers that are extremely sub-par for the Pirates’ top prospect.
“I think that is when you learn the most,” Altoona Curve manager Michael Ryan said of Keller facing adversity through the month of May. “You take a little bit of a bump in the road and learn from those mistakes. That’s exactly what he has done.”
Keller rebounded tremendously over his last five starts for the Curve, posting a 1.11 ERA in 32.1 IP. His batting average against dropped to .156, and he only allowed three extra base hits during that span.
The lasting impression of Keller with a Curve uniform on came on Monday night, when he threw a one-hitter over eight innings. He would’ve had the opportunity to complete the Maddux if not for sitting for an extended period of time in the bottom of the eighth inning.
His one-hit performance came against a Harrisburg team that had Keller’s number earlier in the year. He had an 8.10 ERA in his two starts against the Senators, and this game was circled on his calendar as an important one.
“I had known this game was coming up for a while since my last start,” Keller said. “I wanted to show them what I got, because the last two times I’ve faced them, that wasn’t who I was.”
Keller made the necessary adjustments and bounced back, something Michael Ryan said was very important for the righty.
“He knew that Harrisburg had success against him, and he accepted the challenge,” Ryan said. “I thought he did a great job.”
Barring any setbacks, Keller’s career with the Altoona Curve ends with a 2.62 ERA over 137 innings, including his two Eastern League postseason starts in 2017. Those two playoff starts earned him the Eastern League Postseason Most Valuable Player award. He threw a complete game, one-hit shutout in Game One of the Western Division Series, then he followed that up by going 7.1 innings with only two runs allowed in the Curve’s Game Three championship clinching win in the ELCS.
Told yesterday afternoon about his promotion, Keller quickly said goodbye to his Double-A teammates, packed his things in Altoona, and drove to Columbus to meet his new Triple-A club.
What are his takeaways from pitching at the Double-A level? It’s all about his secondary pitch development.
“I feel like when I got here I was fastball heavy and only throwing breaking balls for putaway and not early and middle of counts,” Keller said. “That’s where I’ve really grown with the curveball and especially with the changeup. I have so much confidence now throwing behind in the count. That’s been my biggest improvement.”
From the time he was promoted to Double-A until now, his changeup has improved dramatically. He has shown the ability to throw it for strikes and for chase, something that wasn’t the case a year ago.
“Throwing it hard and trusting it,” Keller responded when asked about his breaking pitches. “Trusting it’s going to do what it’s going to do. Biggest adjustment I made was working on it during sides and during the game throwing it like a fastball. Having that mentality that you’re going to throw it for a strike.”
Michael Ryan agreed that his changeup development has been essential in Keller’s development.
“This league was really good at letting him know that you can’t just use the heater,” Ryan said. “You’re not just going to blow it by everybody. You have to use the secondary pitches. He’s been able to throw the breaking stuff for both strikes and chase. That’s what he has improved on the most this year.”
After Keller’s start on Monday, I asked Ryan what else Keller would need to check off the list at the Double-A level before a promotion. Ryan paused for a second and exhaled before talking about how good Keller has been. That pause and slight grin was all we needed to know that Keller was on his way soon.
Just like that, Mitch Keller is one call away from Pittsburgh.