After three years of inconsistency and struggles, Mitch Keller turned a corner with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2022. Now, 2023 can be a big season for the righty.
Once a top 50 prospect in baseball, righty Mitch Keller turned a corner as a major league pitcher in 2022. Keller went from being taken out of the rotation in early May to establishing himself as a key piece in the starting rotation for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
During the 2022 seaosn Keller made 31 appearances, with 29 of them being starts, while pitching 159.0 innings. All of these were new career highs for the 26-year-old Iowa native. Keller also posted a career best 3.91 ERA and 0.79 HR/9, while his 8.7% walk rate and 3.88 FIP were each the second lowest of his career next to his 2019 rookie campaign.
When it was all said and done, Keller posted a 2.1 WAR. Entering the season, his career WAR was 2.3. That alone goes to show the major strides that Keller made during the season. Where these strides can really be seen is in the work Keller did after he rejoined the starting rotation after being removed from the rotation for a few weeks in early May.
Keller rejoined the Pirate starting rotation on May 31st. This started a 22 start stretch that was by far the best of his career and saw him start to turn the corner as a major league starting pitcher. Keller pitched 120.1 innings in these 22 starts, posting a 3.22 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 8.8% walk rate, and a 20.7% strikeout rate. He limited opposing batters to a .254 batting average and allowed just nine home runs (0.67 HR/9).
A big reason for Keller's success was the addition of a sinker to his repetoire. His power sinker limited opposing batters to a .394 slugging percentage, and batters have an average exit velocity off the pitch of just 85.4 MPH.
The addition of the sinker also made his four-seamed fastball and slider better. His four-seamer ranked in the 87th percentile of baseball in spin rate while generating a 24.0% whiff rate, while his slider limited opponents to just a .313 slugging percentage and generated a 28.1% whiff rate.
Keller's curveball also morphed into a quality pitch during the 2022 season. The pitch ranked 64th percentile of baseball in curveball spin rate, while generating a 20.0% whiff rate. Opponents hit .275 off of the pitch.
Looking ahead to 2023, Keller, for the first time in his MLB career, enters the season without the pressure of having to secure and then keep a spot in the Pirate starting rotation. Following his struggles in 2019 and 2020, there was pressure in 2021 to improve. When he did not, he spent time in the minors.
Last season, there was debate in the spring if he should even start the year in the rotation. While he did, after early season struggles he was demoted to the bullpen for a few weeks in May before returning to the rotation.
Entering the 2023 season, Keller will not just be locked into the rotation but he will leaned on as a key piece in the rotation. Keller has also pitched himself into a position to be a building block in the Pirate rotation for the next few seasons. Hell, there is even a good chance that Keller gets the ball on Opening Day in Cincinnati.
For much of the first three seasons of his MLB career Keller appeared to lack confidence. This could be seen in his body language on the mound, as well as his lack of conviction when pitching. That changed as the 2022 season went on.
Now, Keller enters the 2023 season with plenty of confidence that is powered by the success he found on the mound in 2022. Mix in four quality pitches, and the 2023 season could be a big one for Keller.