Pittsburgh Pirates: As 2021 Winds Down, Mitch Keller Continues The Search For Consistency

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 There was a time that Mitch Keller was one of the most exciting young prospects in the game reaching as high as 12th on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list, back in 2018 before the season started. 

That has seemed forever ago, as Keller has struggled to establish himself as a major league regular, let alone a player that his prospect status would lead you to believe he'd become.

As the 25-year-old righty from Cedar Falls, Iowa wraps up what was his first full year in the majors, Keller has put together quite the perplexing season and has left just as many questions about him when 2021 began.

If there was one way to describe the start to Keller’s season, it would be by calling it consistently inconsistent. The righty alternated between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ starts all the way through June before back-to-back rough outings landed him in triple-A Indianapolis.

In 12 starts before being sent to the minors, Keller posted a 7.04 ERA across 47 1/3 innings, allowing 56 hits, 37 earned runs, 29 walks while striking out 51 batters. The former second round pick allowed a .290 average and hitters posted a .885 OPS along the way. His Fielding Indepent Pitching (FIP) hinted that he was maybe pitching slightly better than what was showing, but not by much (4.96).

This is where Keller’s season takes a confusing turn. On the surface it doesn’t appear that the triple-A stint did much, as shown by his 5.54 ERA in his 10 starts since returning to Pittsburgh. 

Keller is pitching deeper into games, already surpassing the number of innings pitched before his demotion, he’s kept the ball in play, only allowing three homes after compared to seven before. The strikeout rate is down, but so are the walks, and his FIP is a very respectable 3.74.

That’s where the good ends really, as despite some of the outlining numbers not being bad, the opposition has 72 hits in 50 1/3 innings against Keller, good for a .355 average. His batting average of balls in play (BAbip) is an insanely high .421. 

So, did he improve?

Keller strung together some decent starts to begin the month of September but in a fashion that only he seems to be able to do, had it all unraveled with his horrendous start against the Cincinnati Reds on Monday. 

Prior to Monday’s game, Keller was still giving up an unideal amount of hits (27 in 21 2/3 innings), he also had a 3.32 ERA, 2.51 FIP and a walk-to-strikeout ratio of 7:19.

He would make those outings seem like a distant memory after allowing six earned runs, nine hits and three walks in four innings pitched on Monday.

Keller does have a couple of things working for him. The Pirates aren’t contenders just yet, meaning they can give him a lot more time to try and work things out than most teams would. They also have a lack of options in the system when it comes to major league ready pitching prospects, so he is one of the few players on the roster that seem safe to begin the year with the Pirates in 2022.

While it seems likely Keller will get at least the beginning of next year to continue to work on things, with one start remaining this weekend, he really has a chance to end things on a positive note and build momentum towards 2022.


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