I went to see one of Mitch Keller’s final starts of the 2017 season against the Bowie Baysox because it gave me a chance to see him pitch against a lineup featuring a number of future big leaguers. That Bowie lineup was lead by Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays, but also included Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart.
Game- 8/27 vs Bowie in Altoona
Stat line- 5.2 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 7 K, 1 HR allowed
Performance- In terms of performance, Keller pitched better than his stat line would indicate. Through five innings he allowed just a run on three hits - and that run was the homer, a solo shot by Ryan Mountcastle.
Keller came out in the sixth and got Cedric Mullins to fly out before he started to tire, which is perfectly understandable considering his pitch count was getting high. He hit the next batter, gave up a single to Austin Hays and walked DJ Stewart to load the bases with just one out. Keller was able to then battle back and strike out the next hitter before being pulled.
At the time Keller was pulled, he had only allowed one run and was an out away from escaping the jam. However his pitch count had hit 102 on the night and he didn’t get the opportunity. Instead Jake Brentz came in and promptly gave up a grand slam to Aderlin Rodriguez, which is why Keller gave up four runs despite dominating early.
Keller really impressed me early on, and nothing impressed me more than the way he battled back to get the second out in the sixth inning by way of strike out. Despite being tired, the Pittsburgh Pirates young arm showed that he had some fight in him.
Fastball - I was impressed with his fastball, or should I say fastballs. I saw some 98 MPH pitches in there and he was mostly sitting in the mid 90s with plenty of life. There was some change in the velocity, but still in the low 90s and that led me to believe he was mixing in the two-seam fastball along with his four-seamer. The movement on his fastball was just as important as his velocity, as it was pretty obvious to me that the Bowie hitters weren’t really able to get comfortable at bats against him- including their better hitters. I’d be ok with a 65-degrade on the fastball, between plus and plus-plus.
Curve - When his curve was on, opposing batters didn’t have a chance. I’d be willing to have put the double-plus 70-grade on some of his big curveballs, and he showed the ability to both throw it for strikes and use it to get guys chasing. He actually racked up most of his strikeouts with the curve because it was mostly on this night. However he did have a few which weren’t quite at the same grade as the others and could stand to get a little more consistent. If he’s able to get a little more consistent then he’s got an easy second plus pitch, however I’d call it an above average 55 for now.
Change-I don’t have a grade here because he doesn’t really use his change. Based on what I’ve heard this is also normal for him. It’s not to say he doesn’t have a good change, just that he rarely uses it. He’s been able to succeed in the minors without it, but will need to utilize it more to reach his ceiling. He definitely saw his pitch count get higher because batters were able to sit back and expect a fastball or curve, and sat there fouling off two strike pitches. Adding that change in to keep hitters off balance would be huge for him. I have no grade because I didn’t really see it.
Command - Keller mostly showed average to slightly above average command. He only walked one guy, and that came deep into his start. However he did throw 38 balls to his 64 strikes, and has had bigger command issues in other starts. I’d say he’s got room to tighten his command, and he will need to in order to be able to work deep into starts in the big leagues. I’d probably call it a 45-grade now, but can see a 50 grade in his future.
Frame - Keller is listed as 6’3" and 195 pounds. It’s a good frame for a right-handed starting pitcher, but I believe that he has a chance to add a little more to his frame as he looks to have a little projection remaining.
Overall - There’s a lot to like about Keller. He’s got the frame, fastball, sometimes elite curve, and results that are a great start to a frontline starter package. He really impressed me with his battling back to strike out a guy after loading up the bases with one out while his pitch count was climbing up over 100 pitches in that at bat.
But he’s also not complete. More than anything he needs to add in that third pitch. Tightening his command would probably be second on the list, while to a lesser extent it wouldn’t hurt him to have some additional consistency to his already very promising curve. He can be a big leaguer without these things, but he won’t be a frontline starter without showing more of his changeup at the very least.
He’ll get a chance to work on this in the Arizona Fall League, but barring a breakout there I think he needs to begin 2018 in Triple A. I expect him to continue to improve so that he can come closer to his front of the rotation starter. Overall I think he ends up becomming a very solid #2 starter at the big league level.