Williams: Can the Pirates Get it Right With Mitch Keller?

It’s difficult looking at a pitching leaderboard these days if you follow the Pirates.

There are currently 149 pitchers in the majors who have thrown 30 or more innings this year. Here’s the list, sorted by fWAR. It won’t take long for you to notice a few familiar names. Number eight on the list: Tyler Glasnow. Number nine: Gerrit Cole.

Number 75: Jameson Taillon.

I always envisioned a day when Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow would be two of the top starters in the game, and I figured Taillon would be up there with them. Then you add top prospect Mitch Keller to the mix, and the team would have a dynamic rotation, if only for a year before Cole left via free agency.

Obviously that’s not working out. And the results above, on the day of Keller’s debut, raise an important discussion about the Pirates and their ability to get the most out of their top pitching prospects.

This is not going to be a black and white article. It’s going to be nuanced. There are things the Pirates did right with some of these pitchers, things they did wrong, and a lot of those right/wrong determinations were a product of the time in which the decision was made. The three pitchers above also have completely different circumstances, and their stories are still being written. What we have now is a snapshot in time, and the quick glance at the results shows that there’s a key question regarding Keller:

Can the Pirates finally get it right? Can they take a guy with top of the rotation potential and get top of the rotation results?

We can’t really answer this question, but we can get a good idea of what needs to be done by looking at the individual cases.

What Went Right and Then Wrong With Gerrit Cole?

The thing about Cole is that he actually did somewhat live up to his potential with the Pirates. It was just short-lived. From 2013 to 2015 there were 132 qualified pitchers. Cole ranked 24th in fWAR, 16th in ERA, and 19th in xFIP among those pitchers during that time. Those are good results, and something you’d take from your best pitcher.

But they weren’t quite Cole’s upside. For that, we go to the 2018 season, when he ranked 5th in fWAR (6.0), 18th in ERA (2.88), and 8th in xFIP (3.04). Those are the types of results you expect from a first overall pick, and that’s what you really want from your number one starter.

The Pirates got results from Cole his first three years in the majors, then saw him drastically decline in value the next two years. There were some injuries at play, but the key thing is that MLB’s trends changed, and the Pirates were slow to adapt.

During the 2013-15 time, the trendy focus was on ground balls and throwing pitches to generate those ground balls. That included a lot of sinkers, and a fastball first/fastball heavy approach. Cole was throwing his fastball about 65-67% of the time during these years, while throwing his slider and curveball a combined 27-29% of the time.

Around the 2016 season, the trends started to change. Hitters were hunting fastballs, and maximizing the lift of their swing to have better results against those pitches. The teams who remained with the old method of throwing 60% or more fastballs by default struggled, while the teams who started throwing fewer fastballs and the best pitch more often had success.

Unfortunately, the Pirates were one of the teams who stuck with the old strategy. That makes sense, as they were one of the early adopters for that trend. I’d imagine the early adopters for the current trend will be stuck behind when the league moves on. You stick with what works until it doesn’t work, but unfortunately that’s not always obvious right away.

The trade of Cole to the Astros made it painfully obvious that the Pirates were behind on the trends. He remained a guy who threw his fastball 60% of the time or more, and his breaking stuff less than 30% of the time. This led to poor results and a lot of home runs in 2016-17.

Then Cole was traded to the Astros, where he dropped his fastball usage to 56%, and increased the slider and curveball usage to 39% combined. This year he’s at 53% and 41%, respectively.

I always wondered why the Pirates didn’t have Cole throwing his slider more often, since it was his best pitch. That simple approach — throw your best pitch more often — has been the key to the successful trend for teams like the Astros. It clearly has benefited Cole.

The good news? The Pirates started to see some adjustments to their pitching approach last May, with players adopting the new trends in both the majors and the minors. The bad news is that this all happened after Cole left.

The Pirates did get results from Cole, but the league adjusted, and he didn’t adjust until he went to another team. At that point he started showing even better results. The Pirates have fixed the key issue here that held Cole back in 2016 and 2017. The takeaway for Keller is to make sure he’s throwing his best pitch more often, which means a heavy curveball usage.

Jameson Taillon Held Back By Injuries

The interesting thing here is that Jameson Taillon started looking like an ace last year after adopting the same strategy as Cole. He added a slider, which turned out to be a solid pitch, and started throwing that and his curveball a lot, getting to the point where he was throwing his fastballs less than 50% of the time, and his breaking pitches more than 40% of the time.

The results showed a lot of promise. From the time he made the change through the end of the season, Taillon had the 12th best ERA among starters at 2.71. That led to hope that he was figuring it out with the new slider, and the Pirates were allowing him to pitch with the new strategy, thus avoiding the situation that held Cole back.

Taillon maintained his changes into this year. He was throwing his fastballs a combined 47.2% of the time, and his breaking pitches a combined 47.4% of the time. Unfortunately, the results didn’t follow, and that’s hard to explain considering the results of the individual pitches.

His slider has a .664 OPS against this year, which is an improvement over his .687 last year. The pitch also has a 14.9% swinging strike rate, up from 13.7% last year. The curveball has a .450 OPS, down from .526 last year and .533 for his career. There has been some elevation in the OPS for the four-seam (.712 to .754) and the sinker (.670 to .709), but nothing alarming.

One key difference between Cole and Taillon has been the swinging strike rates. Taillon’s 14.9% on his slider this year makes that his best pitch for swinging strikes. By comparison, Cole is at 19.2% for his slider, 18% for his changeup, 15.2% for his four-seam, and 12.8% for his curve. Taillon only has two other pitches above 10%, and those are his curve (11.5%) and four-seam (12%). The curve was at 13.9% last year, so there’s more potential with that pitch.

Cole has a 37% strikeout rate this year, while Taillon is at 19%. His pitches don’t get hit hard, and don’t allow a lot of damage. The problem is that he hasn’t been able to rely on a big strikeout ability. I’m not sure that this is an issue with the Pirates, as Cole had similar swinging strike numbers with the Pirates on most of his pitches, and almost similar numbers on the curveball and slider.

This doesn’t really apply to Keller, other than hoping that his curveball can lead to strikeouts, especially with an increased usage.

Tyler Glasnow Figured It Out, Then Got Traded

Cole and Taillon are better comparisons for Keller. I project that Keller will have an easier transition to the majors, similar to those two pitchers. The Pirates are using the modern pitching approaches, which should avoid the issue that held Cole back in 2016-17. And Keller’s curveball is promising, while we wait to see just how good it will be in the majors.

Tyler Glasnow is completely different from all of these pitchers. He was a guy who had serious control problems throughout his minor league career. He had plus velocity and movement on his fastball, and a plus curveball. Unfortunately, he wasn’t as effective in the majors at first, due to the lack of control on the fastball and a lack of a third pitch, essentially making him a one-pitch guy.

The Pirates tried to get Glasnow to focus on a changeup to help this situation, and he hesitated to throw the pitch in games and work on developing it. That changed in 2018, although he didn’t throw the pitch often out of the bullpen, and it wasn’t effective when he did throw it.

The interesting thing is that Glasnow is doing all of this with the Rays while using just two pitches — his fastball and curveball. He throws his changeup on occasion, but he’s been 64% fastball and 31% curveball.

The other interesting thing is that Glasnow is showing better control with his fastball, as well as his curveball. His walk rate is way down, helping to lead to his success.

I’ve seen a lot of speculation about Glasnow that is simply wrong. He wasn’t a headcase or a guy who refused to make changes. I’ve spent years unsuccessfully trying to downplay the former, and explaining that any of his quotes about nerves weren’t long-term concerns that would hold him back.

The latter probably comes from the changeup development, since he was hesitant to use the pitch and resisted throwing it at times, to the ire of the development staff. But he got over that prior to 2018, so that wouldn’t have been an issue when he was traded. He even threw the changeup more often with the Rays than he did with the Pirates, though the lack of that pitch was probably due to his role as a reliever with the Pirates.

Glasnow is almost an island, where the Pirates can’t learn anything to apply to Keller. That’s because Keller doesn’t have the control issues that Glasnow had. Thus, he doesn’t have the urgent need to develop that third pitch. Glasnow is only getting by with two pitches now because he’s not having control issues. Perhaps the Pirates could look into why that is happening, and what they did wrong, but it wouldn’t apply to Keller.

Keller does lack that third pitch right now, as I noted in The Book on Mitch Keller earlier today. But as Glasnow has shown, you can still have success with a strong fastball and curveball, plus good control, and Keller is capable of that same thing, with less work to get good control.

Maybe there is a takeaway here. Instead of putting a heavy focus on a pitch that Keller doesn’t have, the Pirates should let him attack with the strengths he does have, which are the fastball with control, and the curveball.

Can Mitch Keller Be a Top of the Rotation Guy?

That’s the key question, and it probably won’t be answered this year. Keller has the stuff to be a top of the rotation pitcher, but the Pirates also have an alarming recent history. They have three other guys who had that same upside. Two are realizing it with other teams, while one showed potential last year, but has been derailed by an injury.

The Pirates don’t have many adjustments to make from these situations in regards to Keller. They’ve already adjusted their approach to fix the Cole mistake of relying on the fastball way too much. Keller doesn’t have the serious control issues that Glasnow came up with. He also doesn’t have the injury history of Taillon, and we’ll see how his curveball holds up as a strikeout pitch in the majors (the fastball could get some swing and miss as well).

Just a quick side note on that: Glasnow’s curveball is at 16.2% swinging strikes, and his fastball is at 10.2%. So it’s not like Cole is the standard, where you need several pitches over 15%, and one at 20%. You can still get strikeouts with a pitch around 15% swinging strikes.

It’s going to be a knee-jerk reaction to think that Keller won’t live up to his potential just because the Pirates didn’t get that from Cole and Glasnow, and haven’t gotten that from Taillon. It’s also justifiable to have that concern, and to let Keller prove that he can be the exception.

But looking at each case, there’s less concern for Keller. They got good results from Cole for a few years, and unfortunately didn’t adjust his approach to the new trends. They may have just given up on Glasnow too early, since he hasn’t been doing much different with the Rays than what he was doing with the Pirates prior to the trade. And it’s hard to say where Taillon would be at without the injury this year.

As for Keller, I’d be concerned if he’s coming up throwing 65-70% fastballs and 20% curveballs. That wouldn’t be learning from the mistake with Cole. And if his control struggles, the Pirates need to find a way to quickly get it back on track. Glasnow’s issues were largely due to height, while Keller’s issues are easier to correct, usually requiring a small mechanical tweak to get him back on track.

If he’s avoiding those issues, and still not living up to a top of the rotation upside, then it raises a bigger question about what is going on with the Pirates and their development process. They have to get credit for developing Glasnow and Keller — two non-first round picks who didn’t have this upside on draft day — and turning them into potential top of the rotation guys. But if they miss on Keller, then it shows that something is wrong in their transition of these prospects to the majors, beyond just individual circumstances.

Unfortunately, that will be difficult to determine. Keller shouldn’t be expected to be a top of the rotation guy in 2019, and probably not even in 2020. So it might take a few years to get the return on Keller, and if he doesn’t work out, that’s a few years that could have been spent fixing this issue.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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