Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Mitch Keller has been hitting triple-digits with his fastball in training this offseason.
I’m begging you Baseball Gods, please let this be the year for Mitch Keller.
It’s been stated before about Keller’s talent. Throughout the minor leagues, he was one of baseball’s premier prospects. So far, that hasn’t fully translated into major league success. The young Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher’s first three looks in the major leagues can be described as unlucky, lucky, and inconsistent.
Back in 2019, when Keller made his debut, he struck out 28.6% of batters faced, had a 7% walk rate, and an HR/9 of 1.13 during the peak of the juiced ball era. But his .475 batting average on balls in play was quite literally the highest of all time in at least 40 innings of work. His only ERA estimator over 3.50 was SIERA at a still solid 3.78 mark.
Keller followed that season with a 2.91 ERA in the shortened 2020 season. But don’t be fooled; he was not a sub-3.00 ERA pitcher. Keller walked more batters than he struck out (16/18 K/BB ratio) while giving up four homers in 21.1 innings of work. So how did a major league pitcher manage such a low ERA despite giving up a ton of home runs and dishing out free passes like they were going out of style? It was because of a .104 batting average on balls in play, the lowest of all time in at least 20 innings.
Last season Keller was pretty much the definition of inconsistent. He had nine starts giving up two or fewer earned runs in 5+ innings of work, but he also had nine starts where he gave up as many earned runs as innings pitched. But there was more at play here than just inconsistent performance.
Keller’s fastball only averaged 93.8 MPH, 1.6 MPH slower than his 2019 average. All of his offerings lost at least 1 MPH of velo since 2019, which meant they also lost spin. All of his offerings dropped at least 100 RPM from 2019. The most severe was his slider, which fell from 2661 RPM to 2370, a near 300 decrease. While some might point to the use of sticky substances, his RPM in 2021 stayed relatively constant throughout the season and never had a severe drop, like Richard Rodríguez, for example.
So, what is there to look forward to next year with Keller? Well, this offseason, the right-hander has been working out at Tread Athletics, a training facility that many other major league pitchers are currently working out with, including former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon. So far, Keller is looking much better in their bullpen sessions. He’s averaging around 97 MPH and has maxed out at 100.9 MPH. For reference, the hardest pitch he has ever thrown in the major leagues was only 98.3 MPH
It should go without saying that throwing bullpen sessions isn’t the same as facing major league batters in a professional game. But his stuff definitely looks massively improved from last year. You can’t help but raise an eyebrow when 100 MPH flashes in that radar gun. Maybe this is the confidence boost Keller needs to up his game. Only time will tell, but I am still very much on Keller’s side.