The One Pitch that Changed Mitch Keller's Career

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It was a dark time for Mitch Keller.  The date was May 17th, 2022.  Keller was just a little over a month into a 2022 season that wasn't going particularly well for him.  After seven lousy starts, the Pirates had pulled him out of the rotation and put him in the bullpen.  

Keller was coming off a 2021 season where his ERA finished a pretty lousy 6.17.  It was the first season he had pitched 100+ innings and he didn't have much to show for it.  The team was reeling and so was he.  Keller's confidence seemed shot.  His face on the mound said it all.  His major league career so far was not that of a once top prospect and he looked shaken.  2022 had not started off any better.

In an attempt to get him back on track, the Pirates put him in the bullpen.  This allowed Keller to take a few starts off and maybe figure something out.  That time off appears now to have been the most valuable time of his major league career thus far.  It gave Keller the opportunity to work on a new pitch.

In a relief outing on May 18th, Keller logged a single sinker.  That may not seem significant, but it was the first sinker he recorded throwing in his major league career to that point.  I remember people noticing.  It was meaningful that Keller was making a tangible change.  There was hope for the young, once promising, prospect.   

Keller followed that up with 19 sinkers thrown on May 25th, 34 thrown on the 31st, and then 42 sinkers thrown in his start on June 8th.  From that point on, the sinker became the pitch he relied upon most, instead of the 4-seam fastball, and it worked.

After that May 18th outing, Keller appeared in 23 games the rest of 2022 and started 22 of those.  He had a 3.20 ERA in that span and brought his WHIP down to a more palatable 1.35.  It was a great, and promising, ending to his 2022 season.   

Keller has further built on that with a tremendous 2023 campaign so far. In eight starts this season, Keller is 4-1 with six quality starts, a 2.72 ERA, and a 1.09 WHIP.  He has also struck out 56 batters in 49.2 innings pitched.  All which culminated into Monday night's start. 

On Monday, Keller joined just five other starters this season to have a complete game shutout.  He is now among Alex Cobb, Max Fried, Gerrit Cole, Sandy Alcantara, and Nathan Eovaldi as the only pitchers in 2023 with one complete game shutout. Equally as impressive was the game itself finished under two hours.  Keller didn't just completely shut down the Colorado Rockies, but he did so quickly and efficiently.  

It was incredibly needed as the Pirates were on a 7-game losing streak after a blazing hot start to the season.  But, that's what aces do.  They're the stoppers.  They take the whole team on their shoulders and get a win even when no other player is playing their best.  On Monday night, Mitch Keller officially became an ace in my opinion.  

And it all stemmed from that one pitch.  That one sinker he threw on May 18th that started it all, and transitioned Keller off of relying so heavily on the fastball.  That new pitch may have saved Keller's career.  The move to the bullpen for Keller appeared to be a last ditch effort to save him.  Who knows where his career would be had that not worked. 

According to statcast, Keller has thrown 789 pitches in 2023.  Just 202 (25.9%) have been 4-seam fastballs.  This has been the key since May 18th.  Depending on other pitches such as the Sinker (19.8%), the Cutter (24.3%) and other a combination of a Curveball and a Sweeper (25.5%) instead of the 4-seamer has proved successful. 

Now there's just one more thing to do for the Pirates in regards to Keller: sign him long-term.  Having an ace of the staff is so valuable in baseball, and Keller should be one for the Pirates for years to come.  I have faith the Pirates will get it done.  And it's all because of that one pitch that reversed it all.