Much has been made of how Mitch Keller turned his season around by adding a sinker to his arsenal of pitches.
There is certainly plenty of statistical evidence that supports how much the pitch has helped the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander. He has pitched well for more than two months now.
However, Keller has made an even bigger adjustment that goes beyond pitch types or selection. It is something harder to quantify.
Keller has developed confidence in his fourth major league season. Instead of being scared when he takes the mound, he now has a poise about him every time out.
It’s been heartening to see, especially for some in the organization who questioned if Keller’s intestinal fortitude would ever match his physical ability.
“I think his mindset is in a situation where every time he goes out, he expects really good things to happen,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “If it does go off track a little bit, he has worked to get to the point where mentally he is able to get himself back on track.
“A lot of people expect when guys get to the big leagues and they’re a prospect that you’re automatically going to have that, and that’s something you have to learn. I attribute it a lot to his mindset of staying in the attack mode and not letting things affect him.”
As a point of self-disclosure, I had given up on Keller back in mid-May. I was convinced the only way he could turn into at least a serviceable major league starting pitching was getting out of Pittsburgh in a change-of-scenery trade.
Kind of like the Tyler Glasnow situation. It had become clear Glasnow was never going to shine in Pittsburgh, but his true talent came through once he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Keller doesn’t have the quite the stuff of Glasnow but he, too, was highly touted while moving through the Pirates’ farm system. Baseball America ranked Keller as the sport’s 12th-best prospect going into spring training in 2018.
Yet when Keller lost to the Cincinnati Reds on May 13 at PNC Park, giving up five runs in 4.2 innings, his season record dropped to 0-5 and his ERA rose to 6.61 through seven starts.
Keller’s career record fell to 7-22 with an ERA of 6.62 in 46 starts over four seasons. It was a large enough sample size to fairly consider Keller as a bust.
Even the ever-supportive Shelton was close to being exasperated with Keller that night, saying, “I think he’s in a situation where he needs to make his own opportunities.”
Instead, the Pirates decided to give Keller an opportunity in a new role by moving him to the bullpen and having pitching coach Oscar Marin teach him a sinker. After allowing two runs in six innings in two relief appearances, the Pirates moved Keller back into the rotation.
While his record is just 2-3 in 12 starts since then, he has a sparkling 3.16 ERA. He is also on a run of five consecutive quality starts, including yielding only one run in six innings in a tough-luck loss to the surging Orioles last Friday in Baltimore.
Keller (3-8, 4.21) takes the mound again Wednesday night when he faces the Arizona Diamondbacks and left-hander Madison Bumgarner (6-10, 3.96) at Chase Field in Phoenix.
Shelton, though, isn’t so sure the short demotion to the bullpen is the catalyst for Keller’s rise.
“I don’t know if it was one specific conversation, if it was one specific outing where it happened,” Shelton said. “I think it’s happened over a course where he’s really beginning to trust his stuff, and mentally, I think he’s expecting to go out and have really good starts.”
And no longer having that deer-in-the-headlights look whenever he takes the mound.