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Pirates All 40: Future is Biggest Question Surrounding Mitch Keller

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Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates

This is one in a series of stories breaking down members of the Pittsburgh Pirates 40-man roster.

Mitch Keller emerged as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ best starting pitcher last season.

Thus, the right-hander will almost certainly be on the mound on March 28 when the Pirates open the season against the Marlins in Miami. It would be Keller’s second straight start in an opener.

The bigger question is whether the 27-year-old will be with the Pirates for the long haul. Keller said 10 days ago that there had been no talks with the Pirates this offseason about a possible long-term extension.

Keller also made it clear he would like to stay with the Pirates past 2025, the year he would become eligible for free agency.

In the short term, the Pirates would be happy to see Keller at least repeat his 2023 success if not better it. He was selected to the All-Star Game for the first time in his five-year career. Keller also won the Steve Blass Award, which goes annually to the Pirates best pitcher and is voted on by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Keller had a 13-9 record and a 4.21 ERA in 32 starts. He also set the Pirates’ single-season record for most strikeouts for a right-handed pitcher with 210, one more than A.J. Burnett had in 2013.

Keller was fourth in the National League in innings pitched (194.1), fifth in strikeouts and eighth in wins.

Hitters had difficulty squaring Keller up as his 87.7-mph exit velocity ranked in the 77th percentile of major-league pitchers and his hard-hit rate (35.6%) was in the 76th percentile. Opponents also hit just .176 and slugged .351 off Keller’s four-seam fastball.

In 17 starts through the end of June, Keller was 9-3 with a 3.34 ERA. That led to him pitching one inning in the All-Star Game in Seattle in which he allowed one run on a solo homer by the Tampa Bay Rays’ Yandy Diaz in one inning.

Keller was particularly sharp in May.

The month was highlighted by Keller pitching his first career shutout and complete game on May 8 against the Colorado Rockies. It was the first nine-inning shutout by a Pirates pitcher since Jameson Taillon in 2018.

Keller followed that gem with a career-high 13 strikeouts in seven innings on May 14 in a win over the Orioles in Baltimore. It was the most punchouts by a Pirates righty since Jose DeLeon had 14 in 1985 and Keller became the first Pirates pitcher to have at least 13 strikeouts with no runs allowed or walks in a game in the Live Ball Era, which began in 1920.

Keller was named the National League Pitcher of the Week for May 8-14.

He also became the first Pirates pitcher to have at least eight strikeouts in seven consecutive starts, a streak that spanned April 27-May 31. Keller had 93 strikeouts before June 1 and was the first Pirates pitcher to have at least 90 by that date.

However, the second half of the season was not as smooth, starting with Keller going 0-4 with a 6.28 ERA in five starts in July. He then lost his first start in August when he was hammered for eight runs in five innings in a loss to the Brewers in Milwaukee.

Keller, though, did finish on a decent note as he had a 4-1 record and a 3.88 ERA in his last nine starts.

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