With Expectations Sky High, Mitch Keller Continues to Improve at Double-A

ALTOONA, Pa. – Remove a span of five batters two weeks ago in Harrisburg, where he allowed five straight hits for five runs, Mitch Keller would be sitting at a 2.59 ERA in 66 innings this season. Of course, you can’t take back that inning, but Keller is still looking at a very solid 3.27 ERA after posting six shutout innings last Wednesday night in Altoona.

After watching him dominate in the Eastern League playoffs last year for the Curve, you could have thought he would never allow a run ever again. The expectations for the righty have been astronomical, almost to the point where, if he allows a couple of runs, it seems like it was a bad start. On the contrary, Keller is right where he needs to be according to those within the organization.

Double-A hitters did not have an opportunity to adjust to him last season, as Keller made only six starts before his two dominating Eastern League playoff starts. This season, the cat and mouse game has commenced, with teams adjusting to Keller and Keller having to counter.

“This league is a really good league with really good hitters, and guys are going to make adjustments,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said. “To watch him be able to go out and make those adjustments is good to see.”

Keller is learning to make adjustments to hitters on the fly during games rather than simply relying on his fastball when times get tough.

“The higher you go up, the better hitters can hit the fastball, even if it’s 97 or 98,” Ryan said. “It’s making him develop his off-speed stuff, and that’s where he’s at.”

According to both Keller and his coaches, his off-speed stuff is coming along quite nicely, especially the changeup. I’ve seen the pitch be very effective against left-handed batters, and he has been using it more often against righties, as well. Keller has certainly not shied away from the changeup this season, something that other pitchers at this level may have done.

It hasn’t all been roses, though. The changeup has been more of a live-and-die type of pitch recently, with two home runs coming off of the pitch in recent starts. In both cases, he missed up in the zone and paid the price for it.

“I’ve been throwing really good changeups,” Keller said. “It’s just that the last few times my mistakes have been up, and they need to be down. That’s one thing I can work on. I need to get that for a strike, too.”

It has been important to work on the changeup this season, as teams have loaded up with left-handed batters against the righty. He has continued to dominate against right-handed batters this season, posting a .182 BAA and .596 OPS-Against. Lefties have fared better against Keller with a .252 BAA and .754 OPS-Against, and they have had almost twice as many at-bats against Keller as righties.

Of course, the changeup is an important pitch against lefties for a right-handed pitcher, having it break away from the batter and out of the zone. Results, as you can see, have been mixed; however, this is the right level to work on and improve the pitch. From last year when he was promoted to Double-A until now, he has thrown the pitch a lot more, and it has improved. As Keller said, the one place where he needs to really focus on now is missing with the pitch down rather than in the zone, which has hurt him.

He continues to throw a dominant fastball and curveball. When he’s locating well with his fastball, which is more often than not, he can use his breaking pitches very effectively. In recent starts, Michael Ryan complimented him for doubling up on his secondary pitches.

“He’s learned how important his secondary pitches are going to have to come along,” Ryan said. “Once he keeps them off-balanced, he’s much better. That’s what he’s going to have to do, and that’s what he has done lately. He doubled up with the changeup and breaking ball four or five times [in his last start]. He pitched instead of just threw.”

Specific pitches aside, Keller has impressed me this season with his “baseball smarts”, understanding of analytics, and knowing what he needs to do to improve. He doesn’t shy away from working on things to make him a better pitcher.

It’s obvious that he is a student of the game. When talking with him last week, I was blown away by his memory, remembering very specific details about at-bats that may have happened a month prior. He can tell you exactly where the defense was positioned during a particular at-bat; he can tell you exactly what pitch may have worked or not worked during a game at the beginning of the season.

Michael Ryan has said that Keller is one of the smartest and most analytical guys to play the game. Keller says that it all can be used to his advantage when on the mound.

“If you know what’s going on around you, you can make pitches based off of the last at-bat,” Keller said. “You know where guys are behind you; you know what tendencies the batters have. It all helps you. If you know all of these things, you can use it against the batter and for your advantage. I think it helps anybody – just learning the game. My big thing now is learning the game, so I can keep improving.”

Ultimately, Keller is doing everything he should be at the Double-A level – not necessarily focusing directly on results and keeping everything in perspective. Expectations have been sky-high for the Pirates’ top prospect, but he is staying grounded.

“Expectations for him are right where we thought he would be,” Ryan said. “He’s going to have a tough start here or there, and he’s going to have a really good start here and there. He’s going to keep attacking and making adjustments. He’s learning to make those on the fly during the game instead of just thinking he can blow the heater by everybody.”

I don’t know how much longer Keller will be a part of this Altoona team, as he has seemed to check off most boxes to earn a promotion to Triple-A. If you are from Central or Western Pennsylvania, I’d check my calendar and get to a game to see him pitch really soon if I were you. The next chance you may have around here may be in Pittsburgh.

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