Derek Shelton has played a good-natured back-and-forth game with the media in each of his first four seasons as the Pittsburgh Pirates manager.
Someone will ask Shelton on the first day of spring training who will be the Pirates’ opening-day starter. He will reply that he is not ready to answer.
It will be interesting to see if Shelton playfully dodges the question again on Feb. 14 when Pirates pitchers and catchers hold their first spring training workout in Bradenton, Fla.
The answer to that question is obvious. Mitch Keller will get the ball on March 28 when the Pirates play the Marlins in Miami barring something unforeseen happening.
Keller was selected to the All-Star Game for the first time in his five-year career last season when the 27-year-old right-hander had a 13-9 record and 4.21 ERA in 32 starts. Considering he is the last starting pitcher standing from the end of last season, he certainly deserves the opening-day honor for a second straight season.
“Obviously a really good first half,” Keller said in reflecting on 2023. “A bumpy road midway in there in some parts of the second half. But overall, really good. There are a lot of really good takeaways. A lot of positive things to build on. Not really hanging up on the negative stuff. But learning from that stuff, trying to keep growing and getting better.
“Going over not really any pitch design stuff or anything like that. No more adding pitches because I already have too many. It’s just refining those and making sure they’re where they need to be. Just trying to get better at all of it.”
What quietly stood out about Keller’s All-Star season was that he pitched 194.1 innings and could have reached 200 if the Pirates hadn’t skipped his last rotation turn of the season. Keller ranked eighth in the major leagues in innings pitched.
Keller is justifiably proud of the innings he ate, especially in an era when many starting pitchers are pulled from the game after going through the batting order just twice.
“Even all the way up through the minor leagues, it’s kind of how it was,” Keller said of being a workhorse. “They would have to shut me down, which was kind of cool. My goal was 200 (innings), so hopefully (this) year I can get there if things go how I expect them to go. It’s cool. That’s my job, to go as many innings as possible.
“When you’re at the end of the year and you look back at that kind of workload, it makes you really happy. Strive for the same thing to keep building for next year. Just kind of knowing what it takes throughout the season, maybe change a little bit, recovery or mid-week lifts, bullpens, maybe cut some out here and there, just so I’m feeling good toward the end or middle of the season. Just learning from how to handle a load like that.”
The Pirates will need Keller to carry his share of the inning load this year. Johan Oviedo will miss the season while recovering from elbow surgery after pitching 177.2 innings last year in his first full season as a starter in the major leagues.
The Oviedo news was a surprise because he did not have any injured list stints last season.
“I didn’t really know he was going through anything like that,” Keller said. “I don’t think he really knew because he was still pitching fine. He was actually pitching really well in some starts. I had no idea, so when I found out, I was shocked. My immediate thought was like, ‘Dang, that’s 160 or so innings. That’s a lot of innings that we need to cover.’
“My heart breaks for him. He was coming off a really good year. I was super excited to see where he was going to go (this) year.
Keller will need to help cover at least a few of those innings. He certainly sounds like he is up to the task.