2023 is all about growth for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They currently sit at 4-2 before playing a single game in the friendly confines of PNC Park. While it is only six games, fans around Pittsburgh are already starting to feel that something might be just a tad bit different with this team. “Bucco Fever” if you will. In the early going, a large part of the Pirates’ success can be attributed to two guys on the starting staff: Mitch Keller and Roansy Contreras.
Keller made his second start on Wednesday and Contreras kicked off his season on Tuesday. Of course, we can’t yet get too excited about their overall seasons. That doesn’t mean they aren’t showing promise.
Keller and Contreras Shining for Pirates
Keller kicked off his season Opening Day in the Pirates’ win over the Cincinnati Reds. His line is not very appealing: 4.2 innings with six hits and four earned runs allowed. However, he did rack up eight strikeouts over those innings. On the surface, someone who hadn’t watched the game would not be very impressed with those numbers. It was the quality of pitches he’d thrown up until the fourth inning where one or two bad pitches got him in trouble.
If there were still any doubt, Keller backed that performance up just fine on Wednesday. He went seven innings allowing just one earned on four hits. He struck out seven more batters and only walked two. That line reads much better.
The strikeouts and limited free passes are awesome to see. The thing I’m happiest with is how deep he was able to go into the game.
Early on in the year, it can be easy to tax your bullpen. Starters are pitching in cold temps and some guys are on innings restrictions for the first month. Keller took the ball and held on to it deep into the game so manager Derek Shelton only had to cover two innings with the bullpen. That’s awesome.
Pittsburgh only had a handful of starts last year where their guy went more than six innings. While not as many true “aces” exist to pitch deep into games anymore, the Pirates didn’t have any semblance of one. Keller, the Pirates’ de facto number-one starter, is the closest thing they’ve got.
He took another big step forward Wednesday as the Pirates need that out of him.
Don’t forget about Contreras
Keller and Roansy Contreras, another young, budding star started their season’s with a bang.
Contreras began last season with the Indianapolis Indians, the Pirates’ minor league affiliate. He was acquired in the trade that sent Jameson Taillon to the New York Yankees a few seasons back. His permanent arrival to Pittsburgh had been anticipated for a while as he’s got the stuff to be a top guy. It seems that the time is here.
Contreras, 23, got into the sixth inning Tuesday night and recorded two outs before being pulled. He’s one of those guys on a pitch count as he was slotted for roughly 80 pitches in his debut outing.
Something Contreras struggled with last season was getting deep into games. He would get batters into two-strike counts and play around too much instead of going after hitters. He’d often give up too many walks and run his pitch count up to see his night end by the fourth inning. That’s not what the Pirates are looking for.
His strikeout numbers came down a bit Tuesday as he only recorded two. However, he only walked a single batter and allowed just three hits. Contreras went after guys instead of nibbling at the corners and got weak contact throughout the night. He’s capable of doing that consistently and the Pirates are going to need that.
What they mean to the Pirates
It’s early to be stat-checking starters but the 3.86 ERA and 1.59 ERA for Keller and Contreras, respectively, would’ve been two of the leading figures for the Pirates last season. That’s a big deal even if it is only just their first few starts of the season.
Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez are both aging veterans who aren’t much more than innings eaters for Pittsburgh. Or that’s at least what they’ll need them to be to keep from taxing the bullpen. JT Brubaker is on the shelf to open the year so Johan Oviedo is in his stead.
In all honesty, the Pirates’ rotation outside of Keller and Contreras isn’t full of particularly elite names. That’s just the reality. So when these two guys are on the mound, you’d hope that the team can win more often than not. They’re going to be heavily relied upon.
With guys like Quinn Priester, Luis Ortiz, and Mike Burrows likely to make their way to the major leagues within the next year, the Pirates’ rotation could slowly form into one of the more potent starting units in the National League. For now, they must continue to rely upon Mitch Keller and Roansy Contreras to lead the way.
They’re both showing early signs that they might just be capable of doing so.
Main photo credit: Eric Canha-USA Today Sports