Is it Finally Time to Believe in Mitch Keller?

 

Photo Credit: Gregory Bull/AP Photo

I’ve been down this road before with Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher, Mitch Keller.  Every time he seems to have figured something out, or has one good start, his next one is a disaster.  The Mitch Keller record keeps skipping, and plays the same song time and time again. 

There were also some signs of hope this offseason.  All of Keller’s analytical numbers were trending in the right direction.  His spin rate and velo were up, and his offspeed stuff had a lot more movement.  However, as we all came to realize, pitching in an analytics lab in shorts and a t-shirt with no batter at the plate is vastly different than pitching in front of thousands, with major league hitters at the plate. 

Keller is having another bad season overall.  He has a 5.26 ERA, which actually brings down his career mark at the end of 2021, which was 6.02.  His 2022 season ERA peaked to a staggering 6.61 mark on May 13th, when the Pirates finally pulled him from the rotation and gave him a role in the bullpen. 

Fortunately, this new temporary role seems to have straightened out the 26-year-old.  That, and a new pitch Keller has been working on.  Since May 18th Keller has given up just five earned runs in 17 innings pitched.  He also threw a sinker for the first time in the major leagues. 

According to Statcast, Keller registered a single sinker pitched on May 18th, which was his first outing of his small turnaround he is currently in the midst of.  He followed that up with 19 sinkers thrown on May 25th, 34 thrown on the 31st, and then 42 sinkers thrown in his most recent start on June 8th.  

The continued increase in sinkers is coming at the expense of his 4-seam fastball.  In Keller’s final start before taking some time off in the bullpen, on May 13th, Keller threw his fastball 40 of his 80 total pitches, or 50% of the time.  In his most recent start on the 8th, he threw his 4-seamer just seven times.  Essentially Keller has a new fastball in the form of a sinker.  And it’s working.

As Keller takes the mound tonight against the St. Louis Cardinals, he is coming off two of his best starts of his career.  It’s also one thing to have two consecutive good starts with no explanation aside from the results.  In this case, Keller knows exactly what to point to in the form of his new pitch.  The explanation for his recent success is clear, and it will become more evident each start as his sinker usage increases. 

If Keller can indeed right the ship that he has been failing to sail for four seasons now, it would be huge for this Pirates pitching staff for the next several seasons.  With Jose Quintana most likely getting dealt at the deadline, and Roansy Contreras still just a rookie, the Pirates need a veteran ace on the mound.  For once, in his entire Pirates career, I feel like that could actually be Keller.  This is because he has actual tangible changes to point to to explain his success.

Now, one bad start should not totally derail the progress Keller has made.  It also certainly wouldn’t be new for Keller.  However, if Keller can perform well against a Cardinals lineup that has proven to be tough to get out this season, while also beating a divisional foe, I will get dangerously close to buying into him as the Pirates ace. 

If he does perform poorly, it won’t be the end all be all, but it will feel like the same lather, rinse, repeat we’ve experienced with Keller his entire career.  Tune in tonight at 7:45 ET to see if the Keller success will continue against the Cardinals, or if we see the same dog and pony show we've become accustomed to with him.  

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