It’s Mitch Day.
Good Lord, I hate myself for typing that. I’m old school, so the only time a player should get a “day” is at the end of a long and storied career.
But if Pirates Twitter can get excited about “Roansy Day,” whenever Roansy Contreras takes the mound with his eight career wins then Mitch Keller is entitled to his own day whenever his turn in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ rotation comes up.
Today is Keller’s day to pitch as he will face the Giants in a Wednesday matinee game at Oracle Park in San Francisco. That usually means good news for the Pirates.
On the most basic level, Keller’s biggest value to the Pirates is that they are 8-3 this season in the 11 games he has started. They have gone 19-24 in the other 43 games.
However, there has been a lot more to Keller’s season than that. Keller’s personal record is 6-1 – his .857 winning percentage leads the National League – to go with a 3.01 ERA. His 146 ERA+ means he has pitched 46% better than the major-league average starter.
Keller’s peripheral numbers are also good. He has allowed just 54 hits in 68.2 innings and his 85 strikeouts and 16 walks give him an outstanding SO/W ratio of 5.31.
Consistency has also been a major asset. Keller has pitched at least six innings in nine of his 11 starts and he has allowed two runs or fewer in eight times.
Following a strong finish to last season, Keller has become the unquestioned ace of the Pirates’ pitching staff. When asked if Keller is taking his game to another level, Pirates general manager Ben Cherington did not need to pause before answering.
“No question. He has,” Cherington said. “Just watch him pitch and you can answer that, if you want to look at some of the metrics, those have changed too so it’s not fake what he’s doing. He’s made real, real improvement and it’s exciting to see. It’s exciting for him. It’s exciting for our team. It’s a great story about what improvement can be possible when a talented pitcher makes the decision to do the training and make the changes that he has, and it’s been fun to watch.”
Maybe not so much fun for opposing hitters, though. They have a measly .209/.265/.333 slash line against him even after he had a rare off night last Friday in Seattle when he allowed six runs in six innings to the Mariners but still got the win.
The Pirates and Keller have had very preliminary talks about a contract extension, though the 27-year-old won’t become eligible for free agency until after the 2025 season.
Owner Bob Nutting has said the Pirates would consider signing more of their players to long-term deals after giving eight-year contracts to third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and outfielder Bryan Reynolds the last two years. Keller seems like the most logical candidate to be next in line.
The Pirates, like most clubs, don’t usually hold contract negotiations in the middle of the season. That will almost certainly hold true in Keller’s situation, though it was suggested to Cherington that the cost of doing business is going up with each successful Mitch Day.
“Our focus first and foremost is to help support players and their performance and improvement and I know we’ve been open but along the way if we can find opportunities where it makes sense to keep players here for a longer period of time, great we want to do that, the door will continue to be open to that,” Cherington said. “When you come to the ballpark every day, we’re not thinking about contracts first and foremost we’re thinking about ‘how do we get better on the field? How can we help players help us get better on the field?’
“That’s just going to continue to be the way it goes and if there’s ever a time to, whenever it makes sense to talk about a contract with anybody, then great we’ll do that, but they’re sort of two different things.”
Early on in Gerrit Cole’s career, he once expressed to me how he would love to have the kind of career that people could look back on and say he was the greatest pitcher in Pirates’ history.
I told Cole if he were that good, the Pirates could never afford him, so he would never reach that level in Pittsburgh. Alas, the Pirates eventually traded Cole and he wound up signing a nine-year, $324-million contract with the New York Yankees in free agency.
That’s not to say Keller will ever command that kind of money. Yet the price of Mitch Days is trending upward.