Pittsburgh Pirates Prospect Report: Mitch Keller

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Sep 30, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle (L) and catcher Francisco Cervelli (R) shake hands after defeating the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park. The Pirates won 8-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 30, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle (L) and catcher Francisco Cervelli (R) shake hands after defeating the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park. The Pirates won 8-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

Pittsburgh Pirates number 13 prospect: Mitch Keller 

The Pirates have made it clear they are willing to draft early and give their prospects ample time to develop. So it was no surprise – first, that the Pirates would draft a high school phenom from Iowa in Mitch Keller and second, that they would be as patient as they have been with Keller, who turns 20 in April.

Keller was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2014 draft and looks to become the second player in his draft class (the Yankees’ Jacob Lindgren was the first) to reach the big leagues. However, like the 19 other players drafted out of high school in that round, Keller still has quite a few years before he reaches the majors, especially in the Pirates’ organization.

The Pirates have been especially cautious with Keller ever since he battled a forearm injury as a rookie. In his first two professional seasons, he has made 14 starts and pitched just 47 innings.

In his first season, with the Pirates’ Gulf Coast League team, Keller made 8 starts and struck out 9.55 batters per nine innings. He didn’t record a decision that season but finished with an impressive 1.89 ERA.

In 2015, the Pirates moved Keller to their Appalachian League team in Bristol, Virginia where he struggled with control, likely as a result of his forearm strain. In 6 starts with Bristol, Keller saw his strikeouts go up to 11.44 batters per nine innings but his walk rate sky-rocketed to 7.32 walks per nine innings. The lack of control along with some bad luck – Keller allowed an abnormally high .429 batting average on balls in play – caused him to finish the season 0-3 with a 5.49 ERA.

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Presumably fully healthy heading into 2016, it will be interesting to see if Keller can regain the control of his pitches. Even if it comes at the expense of strikeouts, Keller projects as an effective ground ball pitcher anyway and he needs to work on owning the lower half of the zone.

He throws a fastball in the low nineties with some heavy sinking motion and already has a decent curveball – one that will drop off the table on batters. Throw in a changeup, although still far from MLB-ready, and Keller could become one of the best ground ball pitchers in the game.

He perfectly fits the Pirates’ drafting tendencies of a young pitcher who doesn’t have blow-em-away stuff, but attacks the zone and keeps the ball in the stadium. So long as Keller doesn’t encounter any more injury trouble, 2016 will be a good chance for him to work on his command and possibly gain some velocity on his fastball.

As I previously mentioned, there is no rush to get Keller to Pittsburgh. The Pirates will probably stash him in West Virginia for Rookie ball this season and let him accumulate some innings there.

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