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Perrotto: Mitch Keller Quiets The Doubters



Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates

PITTSBURGH — The panic can stop.

All those theories on why Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Mitch Keller had struggled in his first two starts can end.

He’s not hurt. He hasn’t lost the zip on his fastball. His six-pitch mix is not too difficult to master. He hasn’t gotten too comfortable after signing a five-year, $77-million contract extension in February.

Keller just had a couple of bad starts to begin the season.

Monday night, he was pretty good. Maybe not All-Star caliber but good enough to help the Pirates beat the Detroit Tigers 7-4 at PNC Park for his first win of the year.

Though the outing was rough at times, Keller turned in a quality start. He also helped the Pirates improve to 9-2, tied for the best record in the major leagues with the New York Yankees.

Keller went six innings and gave up two runs on five hits. He struck out nine and walked three.

“It felt really good. I felt really good out there,” Keller said. “It felt really good to just have some velo back. I don’t want to walk too many guys, but I was happy overall with how it went.”

It was better than his other two starts when he went 0-1 with a 6.55 ERA while allowing 10 runs in 11 innings. The most discouraging part of those two outings beyond the runs allowed was that Keller’s fastball was more like a lowball at times.

Keller averaged 93.8 mph with his four-seam fastball on March 28 against the Miami Marlins in the season opener then 94.1 mph last Wednesday versus the Washington Nationals.

Last season, Keller averaged 95.2 mph with his four-seamer. While throwing one or two mph slower might seem trivial, it can make a big difference at the major-league level.

Keller averaged 94.7 mph on Monday night and is capable of more.

“Yeah, I was really excited,” Keller said. “It’s really good going forward just to know how we set it up that it’s still there. That we can get strikeouts with it, that it doesn’t have to be off-speed. It was just a really good flow of the game and I thought we executed really well.”

Amateur pitching coaches felt Keller’s problems in his first two starts stemmed from throwing too many cutters. He used the pitch just 12 times in his 98-pitch outing on Monday but said that was the result of how the game played out.

The pitch that worked best for Keller was a sinker, which he threw 39 times and averaged 93.8 mph. He threw just 27 in his first two starts combined at a 92.5 mph average.

Keller got six of his nine strikeouts against the Tigers on sinkers.

“I think we got a lot of good results from it,” Keller said. “That’s just the chess game, man.”

It has seemed like the hitters have been winning the match against Keller for a while. After pitching in his first All-Star Game last season, he was 4-5 with a 5.59 ERA in his last 13 starts.

The poor second half and the bad start to this season understandably gave fans reason for concern. It also left open to question the Pirates’ decision to sign Keller to the largest contract for a pitcher in franchise history.

Keller is miscast as a staff ace and is more of a No. 3 starter. That’s not a knock, just reality.

He could move into that role as early as this season once rookie Jared Jones gets further settled into the major leagues and mega prospect Paul Skenes is called up from Triple-A Indianapolis.

Some might say $77 million for a No. 3 starter is exorbitant. Yet that’s the going rate in today’s game.

The Pirates didn’t overpay and Keller showed Monday night that he has value.

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