Mitch Keller With A Lot to Prove for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2022

Aug 7, 2021; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Mitch Keller (23) pitches against the Cincinnati Reds during the first inning at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 7, 2021; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Mitch Keller (23) pitches against the Cincinnati Reds during the first inning at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports /
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After his first full season in the Majors righty Mitch Keller enters 2022 with a chip on his shoulder. Can he find his footing with the Pittsburgh Pirates?

Entering his fourth season and, presumably, second full season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, right-handed starting pitcher Mitch Keller has a lot to prove. To this point, Keller, the one-time top pitching prospect in the Pirate system, has yet to get the results that have been expected of him.

Keller had an up-and-down season (almost quite literally). He had problems with consistency for the large part of the season, leading to a return to triple-A Indianapolis in June, before returning to the big-league team in August. Here are his stats before and after his stint in the minors:

April, 4th – June 10th: 12 starts, 47.1 innings, 22.4% strikeout rate, 12.7% walk rate, 7.04 ERA/4.97 FIP

August 1st – October 3rd: 11 starts, 53.1 innings, 16.9% strikeout rate, 8.3% walk rate, 5.40 ERA/3.71 FIP

What we saw out of Keller in the second half of the season was generally better than the first half. While the ERA was higher than you’d like to see that was in large part due to two starts where he gave up 6 and 7 runs across a total of 9.1 innings. Outside of those two starts, his ERA was 3.89.

The second half also featured his best stretch of pitching. Prior to his return Keller hadn’t put together two solid starts, or two starts with a game score over 40. That changed when he returned in August, and then in September, he put together a 4 start stretch of scores over 40 where he put up a solid 3.32 ERA and a 2.52 FIP, going at least 5 innings in each start.

These are small, but important wins for Keller as he searches to find his groove in the majors. We have to remember that Keller has thrown a collective 170.1 innings at the major league level, the bulk of that coming this year. While it hasn’t been a great start to his career, he has just over one year of service time and has plenty of time left to improve.

There is one thing Keller can capitalize on. The majority of the swings & misses against his fastball come on pitches at the very top of the strike zone. This is a proven strategy for success. One of the most effective pitches in the game, the high fastball has been one of the biggest tools for pitchers like Gerrit Cole and Jacob DeGrom. Keller’s fastball isn’t overpowering, but he throws in the mid-90s with a strong spin rate.

It won’t be long until the Pittsburgh Pirates top pitching prospects start to hit the Major League level. We’ve already seen Roansy Contreras, the #6 prospect in the system per MLB.com, and it won’t be long until the others start to find their way. Beyond that, the Pittsburgh Pirates need to know what they have in Keller in the first place. Can he be part of the core moving forward? Or is he nothing more than a stop-gap starter?

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This puts a lot of emphasis on what Keller does in 2022. This is his biggest challenge yet as a pitcher and how he responds will play a large part in the Pirates’ plans for him going forward. If he can continue to do what he did in the second half of the season, and more importantly, if he can improve and build on it, then we may finally see the version of Keller we all anticipated.

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