Three days after the Pittsburgh Pirates season opens at Wrigley Field on April 1st former top prospect in the organization, who reached as high as 14th overall in MLB back in 2018, Mitch Keller will turn 25 years old. Thus far in his big league career Keller has started 16 games over the past two years, thanks in part to the yo-yo effect between the AAA-Indianapolis Indians and Pittsburgh in 2019, along with an oblique injury during a truncated 2020.
As I have written about previously, the young right hander has been an analytical enigma during this time, with his ERA and FIP consistently played tricks on one another. In 2019 he posted a 7.13 ERA while his FIP sat nicely at 3.19. It was the exact opposite last year as he finished with a solid 2.91 ERA, but saw his FIP rise to 6.75. In trying to provide an explanation for the flip flop some pointed to his drop in velocity, whereas others noticed a slight struggle with command; and if I am being completely honest it is most likely a combination of the two.
During his rookie season the strikeouts he had become known for toward the end of his time in the Minors came with him as he put up a 12.19 K/9. However, unfortunately, his walk rate also came with him at 3.00 BB/9, so anytime he gave up a hit the runs were sure to follow. Some of this could be chalked up to bad luck due to the unusually high .475 BABIP, which bottomed out in 2020; landing at .104. Still the major issue once again was the walks, which rocketed up to 7.48 BB/9; hence the concerns about command. Only this time the swing and miss wasn’t there to totally rescue him as it fell to 6.65 K/9, while his velocity dropped by as much as 3 mph on his curve and 1.5 mph on an average fastball; causing at least his slider to become a well below average pitch.
So, it was no surprise that as Spring Training began some were actively tracking where his velocity was sitting at to judge whether or not he was off to a good start, aiming for that 95 on his fastball as a gauge.
Although these numbers obviously don’t tell the whole story, taking into consideration that one of his 97 mph fastballs bounced into the catcher and he finished Thursday’s outing with a four pitch walk in the bottom of the third; ending his day on 48 pitches, as he was set to max out with 50. This clearly wasn’t ideal, yet as you can imagine I am not ready to throw in the towel after only three innings.
Now if we are having the same discussion a month or so into the season, where Keller is nearing 50 pitches with no outs in the third, we can revisit these concerns that some may have after two starts in Spring Training.