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Pirates prospect Mitch Keller off to a fast start

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Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow may be stealing the headlines in Pittsburgh, but it's time to pay attention to Mitch Keller.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon are getting a lot of hype for the Pittsburgh Pirates and rightfully so. They are seemingly both on the brink of their much awaited big league debuts. The Pirates are deep, however, and they have another enticing prospect pitching the lights out in the South Atlantic League.

Mitch Keller is off to a fast start for the West Virginia Power. Coming off an injury-riddled 2015, he has bounced back and is looking like an elite pitching prospect right now.

Keller stands at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds. The big righty came to the Pirates out of high school and was considered Iowa’s best prospect when they selected him in the second round of the 2014 MLB Draft. He had a good 2014 debut campaign posting a 1.98 ERA over eight starts (nine appearances) and 29 strikeouts over 27.1 innings.

2015 was rough on Keller. He battled a forearm injury for much of the season and once he returned on August 2nd he was inconsistent at best. He didn’t last longer than 4.1 innings in any of his six starts — although the Pirates have long been known for not rushing their pitchers and he was presumably on close watch — and he became a bit wild as August progressed. He came out of the gates with a nine-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio and finished with a 16-to-15 ratio.

He headed into the 2016 — his age 20 season — with a few question marks. Was his high ERA and command issues a result of the injury or were they a trend? Could he adjust to pitching and not simply throwing? How would he handle his first season out of Rookie ball and in full-season ball?

Keller has answered the questions early on, winning the April Player of the Month Award for the SAL. The right hander has made six starts this season and seemingly has come to terms with his command. His first three starts were borderline insane, going five innings in each, while striking out 23 and walking none landing 74-percent of his pitches for strikes. He also didn’t allow a run over those first three starts.

He has been scored upon and has walked a few batters since, but he has gotten stronger as the calendar turned May. He has gone at least six innings in each of his last three starts striking out 19 and walking three. All said and done through his first 34 innings, Keller has a 42:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio with a 0.79 ERA and a 0.59 WHIP.

Keller does it with a three pitch arsenal. His fastball is his best offering. In the past, it appeared that he would overthrow it, perhaps the root of his early command struggles, whereas Keller may now be settling in with his fastball. The pitch lands regularly between 90 and 94 miles per hour and can induce ground balls with a bit of a sink to it, as roughly 51-percent of contact off Keller is of the ground ball persuasion. He has the 11-to-5 curve that has tightened up and is a plus out pitch. His changeup continues to improve, but is easily his pitch that needs the most work. As long as he keeps landing strikes and staying ahead in the counts, he can limit the changeup and still make it effective until he harnesses it as a major league ready secondary offering.

The Pirates are known for developing young pitchers slowly, so there is no reason to expect Keller to jump on the fast track simply because of his hot start. Injury history hopefully behind him, Keller has a long way to go, but he is beginning to look as if it will be exciting to watch the journey. Should Keller continue to progress with each promotion, he could easily be a reliable middle of rotation compliment to Glasnow and Taillon in the not so distant future.