The road has been a long windy one for Mitch Keller. The embattled 27-year-old is finally maturing into the type of pitcher the Pittsburgh Pirates have lacked for a long time. Keller is becoming an ace. With a 4.59 career ERA, the word “ace” doesn’t sound appropriate. However, there’s been a large disparity between the first 50 starts of Keller’s career and the last 30.
Keller was not a major league-caliber pitcher in the first three years of his career. In his rookie season, Keller posted a 7.13 ERA across 11 starts. He bounced between Triple-A and the majors as he struggled. He only made five starts in 2020 with the shortened season and pitched to a 2.91 ERA, which showed progress.
However, 2021 set Keller back yet again with an ugly 6.17 ERA across 23 starts. The questions about Keller’s long-term career began. He entered 2022 with another clean slate but struggled out of the gate and was relegated to the bullpen for a month. That bullpen stint changed the trajectory of Keller’s career.
Mitch Keller Is Ace the Pirates Need
Keller added a sweeper to his arsenal and now has six different pitches he can offer to a hitter. It’s made him a more dynamic pitcher and allows him to trust his stuff more than he previously did. It’s led to him becoming an ace.
Keller’s 3.29 ERA over 29 starts last season is the best of his career for a full season. Thus far in 2023, Keller’s ERA sits at 2.44 through ten starts. He’s becoming more of a nationally known pitcher and has even received a sliver of attention for early NL Cy Young votes. He’s been very impressive.
At 27 years old, Keller is now in the prime of his career. He was nearly cast away from Pittsburgh, a trend far too familiar with top prospect Pirates’ pitchers. Gerrit Cole was good in Pittsburgh but became one of the game’s premier talents with Houston and the New York Yankees. Tyler Glasnow flopped hard in Pittsburgh but found himself successful in Tampa Bay. Charlie Morton spent a handful of years toiling with the Pirates before reinventing himself with a handful of other teams. It’s an ugly track record that no one wanted to see happen with Keller.
Good on the Pirates for sticking with it and figuring out how to harness Keller’s talents.
Keller’s Impact on Rotation
Pittsburgh sits at 24-22 on the season despite a 20-8 start. Even though the hot start has come to a screeching halt, across this losing stretch, Keller has been a massive stopper to the bleeding. He’s posted his first career complete game shutout and is good for at least six innings nearly every time he steps on the mound. Giving the bullpen a rest and the team behind you confidence can make an unmistakable difference.
Also, Keller has been the lone constant in what has been an unsteady season for the Pirates rotation. Roansy Contreras is a young starter for Pittsburgh that is off to an up-and-down start. Rich Hill is nothing more than an innings eater. Johan Oviedo is regressing to the average career pitcher he’s always been after an incredible start. Vince Velasquez is on the injured list but should return soon. And JT Brubaker will miss the entire season.
At some point, Keller will get roughed up this season. His response to that outing will be as important as his performance has been to the Pirates this season. His ability to put a bad start behind him will be the biggest test of whether or not he’s truly arrived but the stats and everything else suggest that he has.
Deeper Look Into the Stats
With five wins, Keller has already tied his career high. The Pirates have been largely unsuccessful during this time so that isn’t surprising that the number is so low. However, it is only May. His .202 opponent batting average is 64 points lower than it was in his best career season last year. The 0.97 WHIP is by far the lowest it has been for him in any season. So, hopefully, there are more wins in his future.
Despite his past struggles, Keller has never been a guy that gives up a lot of long balls. His career high is 14, which was last season. He’s given up five through ten starts this season, a pace of 15 over a full 30 starts assuming health allows.
Opponents this season have just a .560 OPS against Keller. He’s shutting guys down with authority and limiting walks to boot. These are the signs of a guy that is truly becoming an ace for a team that desperately needs one.
With Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes locked up for the long term, the Pirates would love to get a starting pitcher locked up for the long haul as well. They’ve reportedly started discussing an extension with Keller that will only get more expensive with future success.
With the Pirates typically being a cost-effective team, their best route to signing high-end starting pitching is to develop their own and sign them before they reach the open market. For Mitch Keller, the newly-minted ace, the Pirates need to do that sooner rather than later to keep him around in the Steel City.
Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mitch Keller, Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton, Roansy Contreras, Rich Hill, Johan Oviedo, Vince Velasquez, JT Brubaker, Bryan Reynolds, Ke’Bryan Hayes