Should the Pittsburgh Pirates Look to Extend Pitcher Mitch Keller?
By Marty Leap
The Pittsburgh Pirates have approached young players about contract extensions this spring, should pitcher Mitch Keller be one of these players?
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak shutting baseball down, it was reported by multiple outlets that the Pittsburgh Pirates have approached certain young players about potential contract extensions. It would eventually be reported that at least four players – Bryan Reynolds, Joe Musgrove, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Kevin Newman – were approached by the Pirates about potential contract extensions.
While extension talks have not been reported, it is not unreasonable to think the team may have also approached pitcher Mitch Keller about a potential contract extension. Despite his struggles at the MLB level last season it can be seen why the team would be interested in extending Keller. So, is that a move the team should look to make?
We’ll start by diving into Keller’s 2019 MLB results. In 11 starts with the Pirates last season Keller posted a 7.13 ERA in 48 innings of work. Not pretty, not pretty at all.
However, Keller’s advance stats paint a much prettier picture.
First off, he was victimized by bad luck and defense. His .475 batting average on balls in play against was the third worst in MLB history for a pitcher with at least 30 innings of work. The league average BAbip is .300. A high BAbip is the sign of a pitcher that has been victimized by poor defense and/or luck. So, simply by getting his BAbip down to a more reasonable level would shave 2-3 runs off of Keller’s ERA.
Second, there was Keller’s FIP, or fielding independent pitching. FIP is a stat that looks to gauge a pitcher’s performance by taking their defense out of the equation. FIP is graded on the same scale as ERA, and Keller’s FIP was a strong 3.19. This was thanks in large part due to his 1.13 HR/9 and 7.0% walk rate both being below league average, while his 28.6% strikeout rate was above league average.
Finally, there was Keller’s pure stuff in 2019. While citing a pitcher’s stuff might be a bit of an old school way of looking at things, the new school numbers back it up. Keller’s average fastball velocity (95.4 MPH) was in the 83rd percentile in all of baseball. His fastball spin rate was in the 91st percentile and curveball spin rate was in the 85th percentile. Furthermore, his average opposing exit velocity of 87.2 MPH was just a tick better than the league average of 87.5 MPH. So, Keller has the stuff to get the job done.
All of this resulted in Keller posting a 1.3 fWAR last season. This puts Keller on pace to post a 3.8 fWAR over the course of a full 32 start season. A 3.8 fWAR would have been good for 14th best among all National League starting pitchers in 2019.
Keller remains under team control through 2025. This means there is no rush for the team to extend him. That said, it can still benefit both the Pirates and Keller to come to terms on a contract extension.
On the team’s end, they would likely look to buy out the first two year’s of Keller’s free agency giving them at least eight more years of control with the potential ace. As for Keller, signing a contract extension now would get him paid and make him financially set for life regardless of how the next few seasons unfold. This is always enticing for players, especially ones who have only made 11 MLB starts.
Despite his struggles in 2019 there is a strong argument to be made in favor of the Pirates looking to extend Keller ASAP. Now it is up to Ben Cherington and company to decide if this is a path they want to take, and, if it is, to work to get an extension completed.