My first impression of Mitch Keller was not good, and neither was my second.
It certainly wasn’t anything personal about the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander. I enjoyed talking to him and, though quiet, he seemed like a good guy.
However, back in 2019, I questioned if Keller had the confidence to reach his potential as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball.
Keller pitched three times in Grapefruit League games during spring training and got hit hard. He allowed 10 runs and 10 hits – including three home runs – in a total of four innings.
At the time, Keller wasn’t quite 23 years old. He looked overmatched against major-league hitters dare I say even scared.
Keller got the call to make his major-league debut on Memorial Day that year against the Reds in Cincinnati. The Pirates couldn’t have mishandled Keller’s first day in the big leagues any worse if they tried.
They tabbed Keller to pitch the second game of a day-night doubleheader at the Great American Ball Park. Thus, he had to sit in the clubhouse all afternoon during the opener thinking about making his debut.
The Reds tagged Keller for six runs in the first inning, though he somehow made it through four.
Keller went back to Triple-A Indianapolis before returning to the Pirates two weeks later and got cuffed around for six runs and 10 hits in three innings against the Braves in Atlanta.
When he spoke with the media following the game, Keller looked utterly bewildered.
I almost wanted to strip away my professional obligation as a reporter to give the kid a hug. He looked like he needed one.
Thus, it will be neat to see Keller introduced with the rest of the National League squad at the All-Star Game on Tuesday night at T-Mobile Park in Seattle.
You learn early on in this business that you can’t root for teams anymore because it strips away objectivity, which still counts in my book despite the media world changing so rapidly. However, I believe you can hope for individual people to do well and I’m that way about Keller.
However, there were times when I wondered if Keller would cut it in the big leagues.
At the end of the 2021 season, his career ERA was 6.02 over 170.1 innings. At the start of last season, Keller struggled again and was briefly demoted to the bullpen.
When Keller returned to the rotation, everything finally started to click, though. He posted a 3.22 ERA in his last 22 starts and 120.1 innings last season.
This season, he is 9-4 with a 3.31 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 19 starts. He also has 129 strikeouts in 117 innings.
Those are All-Star caliber statistics. Keller isn’t in Seattle as a fluke.
Keller deserves much of the credit for his turnaround. He added a sinker and a sweeper to his pitch arsenal last season and spent the past two winters adjusting his workout regimen and that has enabled him to max his fastball out at 99 mph.
That didn’t seem possible four years ago. Heck, it seemed that way just two years ago.
However, there has been quite a transformation for Keller. He has gone from scared rookie to an All-Star and it’s been a cool story.