Keller pacing for a June 2019 MLB promotion?
Heavy traffic on the Atlantic City Expressway caused me to miss the first inning, which means I missed seeing how Mitch Keller set up and delivered the first two strikeouts of his Double-A career. After seeing the next three dominant innings in a row, it was pretty evident how Keller was getting the job done. Keller used fastball command to take control of the inner half of the plate, against a very good Trenton Thunder lineup that had propelled the team to wins in two-thirds of their games played so far this season. Without a radar gun present to tell me the velocity on Keller’s fastball, it was difficult to tell if he was overthrowing or if this was the norm for him. The pop of the glove and the reaction of the opposing hitters, indicated that Keller was throwing significantly harder than his opposition on the mound for Trenton. By establishing the fastball early in his outing, Keller was able to put together a successful Double-A debut, despite pitching on the road against the very best competition in the Eastern League.
Even though I missed the first inning, I did get to witness how Keller set up and executed the strike out on his final two strikeouts of his outing. His third strikeout came against the lead off batter in the fourth inning, and Nick Solak did not stand a chance against an aggressive Keller in that at-bat. Keller poured two straight fastballs over the outside corner for strikes, then finished him off with a third straight fastball bordering on being up and out of the zone. Keller’s fourth strikeout would come in his rough fifth inning, on a back door curve ball to Rashad Crawford, after showing him a fastball up and in for a swinging strike in the at-bat. On Twitter, I noted throughout the game how contact for the Thunder batters looked difficult. This was evident in many late swings and misses on fastballs both up and down in the strike zone, along with off-balance high choppers hit to third base generated by changeups and curve balls located middle away to the opposing hitters. The Thunder line up did adjust toward the tail end of their second time through the lineup, but this adjustment also corresponded with Keller missing location.
Leading off the bottom of the fifth inning, Keller missed with a 1-0 fastball middle-away. Dante Bichette Jr. proceeded to go with the pitch, hitting it hard into right center field for the first hard hit ball against Keller on the day. Previously the Thunder had recorded a hit on a ball that was dribbled on the infield in the first inning, and their next hardest hit ball was a soft liner hit by Mike Ford in the fourth inning, which was caught by Jordan George at first base.
Zack Zehner followed the lead off single with a double to left field on a front off-speed pitch that leaked over the middle of the plate. This put runners at second and third with no out for Francisco Diaz. While Diaz fell behind in the count after being late on two fastballs, he drove a hanging curve ball over the infield for a base hit into center field. Elvis Escobar got the ball in quickly to prevent the runner at second from scoring. Keller followed that with his fourth strikeout of the day, getting Crawford looking on back door curve ball. Jeff Hendrix drove in the second run against Keller when he went with a fastball and hit it in the air to left field for a sacrifice fly. Keller would allow a chopper through the infield for another hit in the inning, but Nick Solak was not able to drive in anymore runs with his opposite field drive that Michael Suchy hauled in on the track to end the fifth.
Keller would walk the lead off batter in the sixth inning on four pitches, while starting to lose the feel for his fastball command. He fell behind the big first basemen for the Thunder, but induced a groundout on a well located front door slider on a 3-1 pitch. Keller had some close pitches go against him in his third battle with Bichette Jr., and the final result was a 3-2 pitch being thrown for ball four to put two men aboard. This is where Keller dug deeper to finish his outing, using the fastball to set up soft contact on the changeup and curve ball. Keller induced back-to-back soft ground balls on the infield to put up another zero in the sixth inning as he completed his outing at 88 pitches thrown on the day. Zehner put Keller’s fastball in play, but the slow chopper to Cole Tucker was turned into an easy out at second base. Diaz could do very little with a front door breaking pitch on a 1-2 count from Keller, as he hit a high hopper to Anderson Feliz to end the inning.
Overall it was a successful day for the Pirates top pitching prospect, despite getting into the fifth inning jam that prevented him from earning a win his Double-A debut. Keller’s fastball looks fantastic, and his fastball command early in the outing was fantastic as well. Like we have seen from some of the other young starting pitchers from the Pirates, Keller does not have a feel for leaving the zone effectively with his breaking pitches. Like Taillon, Keller is accustomed to his curveball generating swings and misses when located within the zone, after being set up by his fastball. Over time he will learn that the curve ball best works as a pitch to get right handed batters looking when located in the zone, and getting both right handed along with left handed hitters to strike out swinging on curve balls that dip beneath the zone. Keller’s poise and confidence on the mound, has him positioned to continue his development as a future ace for the Pirates. His fastball will likely make hitters uncomfortable at each and every level he pitches at, and his willingness to pitch inside is something that very few pitchers his age have as part of their plan of attack.