Not too long ago, Mitch Keller was one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. In 2018, MLB Pipeline ranked him the 16th-best prospect in the league. In 2019, he was 19th, and in 2020, he was ranked 39th.
The talent and upside have always been there, but so far it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Keller in the big leagues. Across 39 Major League starts, Keller has posted a 6.02 ERA though with a much better FIP of 4.30. He’s allowed far more hits (212) than innings pitched (170.1), and his solid command he had throughout the minor leagues hasn’t translated well to his time in Pittsburgh (4.4 BB/9),
We’ve been waiting for Keller to take a step forward for quite some time now, but can it actually happen in 2022? Keller has looked fantastic so far this spring. The soon-to-be 26-year-old has yet to allow a run over his 12.2 innings. He’s given up 12 hits, walked just one batter and has struck out 11.
For comparison, last spring, Keller gave up a staggering 23 hits in 11.1 innings and walked eight batters against 11 strikeouts. He had an ERA of 11.91. Drastic difference from this time one year ago.
Now, it’s only spring, so statistics have to be taken with a grain of salt. But, there are reasons for what he’s shown so far that can’t be ignored. For starters, he’s increased his velocity significantly. in 2022, Keller averaged 93.9 mph on his fastball. This spring, Keller is consistently sitting in the 95-97 range, and has even hit 100 mph. Some offseason training tweaks have led to the increased velocity.
Another reason is Keller has implemented a new pitch, a slurve-type breaking ball that has looked pretty sharp for just recently getting added to his repertoire.
While both the increased velocity and the new breaking ball give optimism for a step forward, the biggest development might be the outstanding command and control he has shown. Keller’s one walk is one thing, but he’s been in command of the strike zone, both with his fastball and off-speed pitches. If he can carry this over to the start of the regular season, it will make taking a big step forward significantly more likely.
Keller is pitching with confidence on the mound. In Tuesday’s game against the Red Sox, Keller allowed five singles, two of which never left the infield. Twice he faced traffic on the base paths, and twice he didn’t lose his composure and wiggled out of the jams.
For all he has shown this spring, Keller could very well be on his way to making his first career Opening Day start on St. Louis one week from Thursday.
With everything he has shown this spring and the fact that Keller’s career FIP is significantly lower than his ERA to date, there are reasons for the Pirates to not only hope, but even expect that 2022 will be Keller’s breakout campaign. The Pirates need someone to step up in a rotation that largely lacks experience. Having Keller anchor the rotation would be massive for 2022 and beyond.