Morning Report: The Book on Mitch Keller

The Pirates will be calling up their top prospect, Mitch Keller, to make a start in the second game of today’s double-header. When a key prospect arrives, we run our scouting report series, giving you everything you need to know for their debut.

I don’t know if Keller is up for good, although I make the case below that he should be. I’ve also got some information on Super Two status, the 26th man rule, and of course the scouting info on Keller’s pitches.

Here is The Book on Mitch Keller.

Where Did Mitch Keller Come From?

The Pirates drafted Keller in the second round of the 2014 draft, 64th overall, taking him out of the prep ranks and signing him to a $1 M bonus. At the time he was taken, he looked like most of the other projectable prep pitchers the Pirates had drafted, with the exception that he was already throwing in the low-to-mid 90s, with some reports that he was touching 97.

Keller quickly showed his potential, displaying good stuff in the GCL in his debut. He missed time with an injury the following year, and dealt with control problems when he was healthy, which was also a minor issue in the GCL. During the 2015-16 offseason, he made an adjustment to prevent his glove arm from dropping during his delivery, which kept him in-line with the plate and fixed his control issues.

Following this adjustment, Keller quickly rose through the prospect ranks, becoming the top prospect in the Pirates’ system and one of the top prospects in all of baseball. He now makes his debut almost two months after his 23rd birthday, and you could argue that he should be given a chance to be in the majors for good.

The Fastball and the Control

The biggest strength for Keller has been his fastball. The pitch sits mid-90s, and tops out in the upper 90s. He’s displayed strong control of the pitch since that adjustment prior to the 2016 season, and has worked heavily off the fastball throughout his career.

The fastball usage was at an extreme in the lower levels. There would be a lot of games in A-ball where he used the fastball exclusively the first three or four innings, simply because opponents couldn’t do anything with the pitch. He eventually started forcing his off-speed stuff into the mix early to get work on those pitches.

Keller struggled with his control at times in Triple-A, needing some mechanical tweaks to get back on track, while also getting adjusted to throwing his off-speed stuff earlier. He walked 13 in 20 innings to start the 2019 season, but has since walked seven batters in 27 innings over his last five starts. That includes one start where he walked three in three innings, before rebounding with three walks in 13 innings over his next two starts.

The control can be a huge asset for Keller, and is a big part of what drives his value. I talked to one scout who commented that he can hit the outside corner (versus right-handers) for a strike better than a lot of MLB pitchers, and that comment came when he was still in Bradenton. If his control is on, Keller should be able to make an easy transition to the majors, similar to what the Pirates saw with Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon.

The Off-Speed Stuff

Keller pairs his fastball with a curveball, a changeup, and a slider, with the last pitch being a recent addition that he’s thrown for a little less than a month.

The curveball is his best pitch, and when it’s on, it’s a plus pitch that can generate swings and misses. It works in an 11-to-5 movement, with a hard break and a hammer finish. He has the ability to throw the pitch for strikes, in addition to getting swinging strikes.

Keller has worked a lot on the changeup over the last two years. He changed his grip at the end of the 2017 season, and started seeing better results in the AFL that offseason. He continued showing improvements in 2018 with the pitch, and has gotten it to a point where it could eventually be an average pitch for him. Right now the pitch lags well behind the fastball and curveball.

Perhaps that’s why Keller added a slider, throwing it for the first time during his May 2nd start, and using it often since then. Keller calls the pitch a slider, but it has cutter action and velocity. The pitch has similar movement to his curveball, but thrown harder and with a much sharper break.

John Dreker noted that Keller has been working his cutter (86-88 MPH) up in the zone, and the changeup (88-89) down in the zone. This works well, as Keller’s changeup has sinking action when thrown at the bottom of the zone, while the slider has more movement, making it difficult at the top of the zone.

The curveball should be good to go in the majors, and Keller could be an effective pitcher right now if the fastball, the control, and the curve are on. But he’ll need one of the changeup or slider (or the combo) to emerge as a reliable pitch in the event that the fastball or the curve aren’t working on a given night.

What is His Upside?

Keller has the chance to be a top of the rotation starter, although that is dependent on him figuring out the third/fourth pitch and expanding beyond the fastball/curveball combo. He’s got a plus fastball and a plus curveball, and his control and command of the fastball can be plus at times. That’s a strong starting combo, and good enough to be an effective MLB starter without the third pitch.

It’s unlikely that Keller will reach this upside in 2019, and he might not reach it in the following years, unless he sees rapid improvements with the new cutter. But he should be an above-average pitcher in the meantime.

I’ve always viewed Keller as more of a Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon type pitcher in terms of transitioning to the majors. He’s not a Tyler Glasnow type where he will struggle for a few years before hopefully figuring it out. He’s more like Cole/Taillon where I’d expect him to come up and stick right away, becoming a 2+ WAR starter immediately, with the hope of improving from there.

A big concern with Keller’s upside would be the track record with those other three pitchers, as they didn’t get top of the rotation results out of Cole, Taillon, or Glasnow.

Analysis

I think Keller should be up for good at this point. There’s the Super Two factor, and he’s probably up early for that. But if he stays up for good, we’re talking about a higher salary during the 2025 season, and that’s only if the Super Two rule sticks beyond the 2021 Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Keller can provide a boost to the rotation that sorely needs a boost right now. He would be an improvement over current depth starters Steven Brault and Nick Kingham, while also reducing the need for an opener strategy.

Keep in mind that if Keller is added as the 26th man for the double-header, he could be sent back down to the minors, then recalled in time for his next start, giving the Pirates an extra roster spot for a few days. Normally when a player is sent down, he must spend 10 days in the minors before he can return, unless he’s replacing a guy going to the injured list. The 26th man doesn’t need to spend 10 days in the minors following the double-header (assuming he wasn’t optioned recently with less than 10 days, in which case he would need to spend the remaining days in the minors before returning to the 25-man roster).

The important thing here is that it would be smart for the Pirates to send Keller down after his start, even if they want to keep him around for good. That’s all assuming he’s added as the 26th man, and not added to the 25-man roster via another move.

I’ll have more thoughts on Keller this afternoon.

PLAYOFF PUSH

Altoona is in fourth place in their division, 7.5 games back with 22 games remaining in the first half.

Bradenton is in third place in their division, three games back with 20 games remaining in the first half.

Greensboro is in second place in their division, 4.5 games back with 21 games remaining in the schedule.

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pittsburgh Pirates lost 11-7 to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday afternoon. The Pirates will play a split doubleheader today against the Cincinnati Reds, starting a four-game series over the next three days. Nick Kingham is getting the start in game one, followed by Mitch Keller making his big league debut in the night cap. Kingham has gone four innings in each of his last three outings, allowing a total of 15 runs on 22 hits and eight walks in those 12 innings. He pitched against Cincinnati twice early this season, throwing two scoreless frames once, then giving up two runs over two innings the next time out.

In game one, the Reds are sending out righty Luis Castillo, who has a 2.38 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP and 78 strikeouts in 64.1 innings. He faced the Pirates back on Opening Day and allowed one run over 5.2 innings, while striking out eight batters. Game two will be righty Sonny Gray, who has a 3.78 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP and 57 strikeouts in 50 innings. He faced the Pirates in each of his first two starts this season, allowing three runs in 2.2 innings in his debut, followed by one run over 6.2 innings on April 5th.

The minor league schedule includes two early afternoon games for the holiday. Alex McRae, who allowed two runs over seven innings in his last start, with no walks and eight strikeouts, will be on the mound for Indianapolis. Altoona doesn’t have a starter listed for today, but it is Cam Vieaux’s spot in the rotation, so I’d pencil (not pen) him into the lineup. Bradenton has off today. Greensboro has the lone night game today in the minors and they will send Alex Manasa to the mound. He has given up three earned runs in each of his four starts this month, giving him a 4.63 ERA in 23.1 innings in May.

The full 2019 Pirates Prospects Prospect Guide is now available, up to date as of April 3rd, with every player in the minor league system (NOTE: There have been just three players released and two added since then, so the book is still 99% up to date). Includes full reports on the top 50 prospects, reports on over 150 other players, as well as looks back at the recent drafts and international signing classes. Subscribers get 20% off the purchase of a book.

MLB: Pittsburgh (25-25) @ Reds (24-28) 1:10 & 7:10 PM DH
Probable starter: Nick Kingham (8.76 ERA, 23:14 SO/BB, 24.2 IP) and Mitch Keller (NR)

AAA: Indianapolis (27-19) @ Columbus (27-20) 2:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Alex McRae (5.18 ERA, 44:16 SO/BB, 48.2 IP)

AA: Altoona (23-25) @ Portland (15-32) 1:00 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Cam Vieaux (2.85 ERA, 37:16 SO/BB, 50.1 IP)

High-A: Bradenton (28-21) vs Lakeland (21-28) 6:30 PM 5/28 (season preview)
Probable starter: Max Kranick (4.79 ERA, 33:15 SO/BB, 44.1 IP)

Low-A: Greensboro (33-16) @ Hickory (32-17) 6:30 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Alex Manasa (3.66 ERA, 52:11 SO/BB, 51.2 IP)

HIGHLIGHTS

From Bradenton, Lucas Tancas walks it off

It took nearly two months, but Ryan Peurifoy’s first hit was a bomb to left field

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

5/26: Francisco Cervelli placed on 7-day injured list. Jake Elmore designated for assignment. Jacob Stallings and Jose Osuna added to Pirates.

5/25: Pirates add Rookie Davis and Dovydas Neverauskas. Chris Stratton placed on injured list. Michael Feliz optioned to Indianapolis. Lonnie Chisenhall moved to 60-day IL.

5/25: Pedro Vasquez promoted to Indianapolis. Ryan Peurifoy added to Altoona roster.

5/25: Ike Schlabach placed on injured list.

5/22:  Ji-Hwan Bae removed from restricted list. Raul Siri assigned to Extended Spring Training.

5/21: Steven Baron placed on injured list. Richard Rodriguez added to Indianapolis roster.

5/21: Austin Coley added to Bradenton roster. Luis Nova assigned to Extended Spring Training

5/20: Nicholas Economos promoted to Bradenton.

5/18: Justin Harrer added to Greensboro roster. Jonah Davis assigned to Extended Spring Training

5/17: Trevor Williams placed on injured list. Clay Holmes recalled from Indianapolis

5/17: Geoff Hartlieb added to 40-man roster and recalled by Pirates. Jacob Stalling assigned to Indianapolis (cleared waivers) and Richard Rodriguez optioned to Indianapolis

5/17: Luis Nova added to Bradenton roster. Oddy Nunez placed on injured list

THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

Three former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, plus a game recap from the 1979 season. The players born on this date include center fielder Jacob Brumfield (1995-96), pitcher Ross Baumgarten (1982) and 1954 pitcher, George O’Donnell. Brumfield was a 1983 draft pick, who didn’t make his Major League debut until 1992. He was the Pirates starting center fielder in 1995, then got traded away the following May. Baumgarten went 0-5, 6.55 in 44 innings for the Pirates. O’Donnell won 20 games in the minors in both 1951 and 1953, but he managed just three Major League wins in his career.

On May 27,1979, the Pirates opened the day with an 18-21 record, losers of three straight, sitting in fifth place, seven games out of first place. The day didn’t start off well either, with pitcher Jim Bibby leaving the game early due to a strained rib cage muscle. The Pirates ended up beating the Mets that day by a 2-1 score, then they won another five games in a row, turning their season around. After May 27th, they went 80-41, then defeated the Baltimore Orioles in seven games for their fifth World Series title. You can view the boxscore for this game here.

On this date in 1891, the Pirates released pitcher Harry Staley, despite the fact he had a 2.89 ERA in seven starts and two relief appearances. He immediately signed with Boston and went on to win 20 games the rest of the season, and then 22 more in 1892, posting a combined 42-18 record.

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