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Ten Things That Went Wrong for the Pirates in 2021 – No. 2: Keller Didn’t Take Next Step

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It was just two years ago that Mitch Keller was considered one of the top 20 prospects in baseball. The 2014 second-round draft pick was heralded for an impressive three pitch mix that included a fastball, a curveball and a slider. Thanks to the projections of those three pitches and his above-average control, Keller was tabbed a front-of-the-rotation starter by various outlets that evaluate prospects.

Keller got his first taste of big league action in 2019, posting a 7.13 ERA in 48 innings of work – 11 starts. While the ERA looks disastrous, Keller owned a 2.70 FIP/3.19 xFIP, indicating that he pitched much better than the surface-level statistics showed. 2020 was the opposite for Keller, who made five starts with the Pirates on the year. The right-hander posted a 2.91 ERA, but his 6.17 FIP/6.75 xFIP showed some luck was involved. Keller’s command disappeared as he posted a 20.7 BB% vs. an 18.4 K%. Keller’s last two starts of the season, though walks were an issue, were very good. He pitched 11 innings and didn’t allow a run – or even a hit for that matter.

With question marks regarding the Pirates rotation heading into 2021, the Pirates were hoping Keller would take that next step and realize the potential he had as a prospect. While he showed flashes, Keller was inconsistent throughout the season and put together what was largely another disappointing season. In total, Keller pitched just over 100 innings spanning 23 starts. He went 5-11 with a 6.17 ERA for the Bucs.

One of the biggest reasons for Keller’s struggles was fastball command, which was one of the main areas of focus for Keller when he was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis in the middle of the season. Too many times, Keller left fastballs in the middle of the plate and opposing batters made him pay the price. Inconsistency was the other issue for Keller, who seemingly began the season stuck in a pattern of one good start, followed by a bad one and so on.

The good news for Keller is that it wasn’t all bad all the time, and there are positive indications moving forward. For one, he showed the frontline starter potential that so many saw in him on more than one occasion. One of his best starts of the year came at Wrigley Field in September when he blanked the Cubs over six innings and fanned eight batters. The other good news for Keller? While he did get hit around at times, he did an exceptional job of limiting the long ball. On the year, he allowed just 10 home runs, and didn’t allow any over his final six starts to end the year. That is a big reason why Keller’s 4.30 FIP on the season, while unspectacular, is a lot more promising than the ERA shows.

Both Keller and the Pirates will head into 2022 under similar circumstances but with some added pressure. The Pirates again have some question marks in their rotation, and they will be counting on Keller to offer some production and stability. For Keller, it may turn into a make or break season for the 25-year-old. Keller has now made 39 starts at the Major League level, and it’s time for him to show consistency in Pittsburgh. Even if he doesn’t live up to the “ace” potential that he had as a prospect, Keller will need to take the next step and become a mainstay in the Bucs’ rotation.

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