We Just Saw Mitch Keller's Best Indicator of Breaking Out

Photo credit to Matt Freed of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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I have been very hard on Mitch Keller.  In fact, I have been hard on the entire Pirates pitching staff this offseason, and I will likely continue to be as early as tomorrow when I write my Pirates preseason pitching grades article.  

Keller appeared to be in line to become just another top prospect, who shines in the minors, but never makes a positive impact in the major leagues.  Even with video after video of Keller improving this offseason, I wasn't buying it.  I do not buy into a guy pitching well on turf, inside a closed gym, against a backstop with no batter.  I do not buy into success outside of a real game-time situation.  

It's similar to NFL Pro Days for me.  Sure, Malik Willis can throw a ball to a receiver uncovered by a defender 65-yards downfield without a pass rush while wearing shorts.  Who cares?  But this isn't about him.

Keller's problem was never his "stuff", nor his talent.  It was all very evident that existed.  It was the lack of composure on the mound when anything would go wrong.  His confidence would visibly leave his body, and his face would appear as if he was staring down the school bully in the batter's box.  

As recently as some of Keller's Spring Training starts, I still couldn't buy into his progress.  Yes, he looked great, and I was getting dangerously close to buying into him again.  Me, a guy who has lambasted those who dive headfirst into Spring Training stats on our Saved By the Ball podcast that comes out every Wednesday on Spotify and iHeart Radio (shameless plug).  

However, I still could not fully buy in because it was just Spring Training, right?  Then yesterday happened.  And if you peruse the Box Score, you'll think four earned runs in 3.2 innings is not good.  How could this be his break out moment?  You're right, it's not good.  But, watching the game told a different story.

Sometimes you can learn more about a player in their struggles than in their successes.  This was the case with Keller's start yesterday.  By any quantifiable measure it could be seen as a failed start.  If he gives up four earned in 3.2 innings in the regular season, he will not be putting the Pirates in a position to win that day.  Especially with how bad I expect the bullpen to be.  

However, Keller battled, and it could have been so much worse.  That's not typically how Keller's struggles have been in the past.  Instead of saying "it could have been so much worse" it's usually, "and it couldn't have gotten worse for the Pirates starter."  Yesterday, Keller kept composed, battled hitters all day, and limited the damage.

Limited the damage!  Battled!  Mitch Keller!  

This is the new Mitch Keller.  A guy that has looked outstanding all offseason until yesterday.  However, instead of wallowing in his self pity once something finally did go wrong, he stayed confident in himself, battled, and limited further damage.  It is in his struggles that I found the most positive signs of a potential breakout season for the once top prospect.

Now, if his first regular season start doesn't go well, we could see old Mitch.  He could slip back into the non-confident, afraid to attack hitters, visibly frustrated, Mitch Keller.  But I think yesterday tells a more accurate story of which Mitch we will see this season.  And I am ready for it.