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Mitch Keller Turned Into One of the Top Pirates Prospects During the 2016 Season

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BRADENTON, Fla. – Mitch Keller has easily been the biggest story in the Pirates’ farm system this year, and arguably the best story in the organization. A year ago, Keller was a high upside arm with a good fastball that hit 95 MPH, but with control problems and coming off a season with injury concerns. He had forearm tightness in Extended Spring Training last year, leading to a shorter season in Bristol, which reduced his development time.

Last night, Keller wrapped up his 2016 season with his second playoff start for the Bradenton Marauders. He went eight shutout innings, and while he didn’t have his best stuff, he was completely dominant. It was the perfect way to wrap up a season where Keller went from a high upside arm with questions, to a guy who is now in the top-tier of prospects in the system, and who could arguably make a case as the best prospect in the system.

“I’m really excited with the progress I’ve made this year,” Keller said. “Everything they’ve thrown at me, I’ve done it. Just put a really hard-working mindset to try to do everything they’ve told me to do.”

The transition all started last off-season during the Fall Instructional Leagues. Keller made a small adjustment to his delivery, holding his glove arm firm in front of him, rather than letting it drop down below his waist and swoop out toward the plate. By removing that moving part from his delivery, he was able to repeat easier, getting much better command on his fastball.

“That was a huge part of it,” Keller said. “Kudos to those guys, being able to pick [that] out. I have full trust in the whole pitching coach staff, [pitching coordinator] Scott Mitchell, I just have so much trust in them that they know what they’re doing.”

Keller’s walk rate went from 15.8% in 2015, to 3.7% in West Virginia this year. With the command issues fixed, the next off-season plan for Keller was to get stronger, and get prepared to throw a complete season, preparing him for the jump to West Virginia. He spent a lot of focus on conditioning last off-season, and that allowed him to throw 130.1 innings during the regular season, along with 13 additional innings during the playoffs.

He probably won’t be pitching during instructs this off-season, which makes sense. He had 47 innings combined in his first two seasons in pro ball, not counting instructs and Extended Spring Training. However, even with those innings added in, and even if you add in his Spring Training innings, he wouldn’t come close to his innings total this year. Despite the massive increase, Keller had no issues, even seeing a velocity increase late in the year, jumping to 94-97 MPH and touching as high as 99.

“I felt really strong going throughout the whole season,” Keller said. “It’s a lot more innings than I’ve ever thrown. But I felt really good. Just use that to go into next year.”

Better command. Elite velocity. The ability to throw a full-season of innings. This is all the makings of a great starting pitcher. But Keller didn’t stop there.

The Pirates wanted him focusing on commanding the fastball at the start of the year. When he showed he could do that, the focus then switched mid-season to developing his off-speed pitches. He spent a lot of time this year developing his changeup — a pitch that he only found a grip for last season — and turning that into something he was comfortable throwing in any count. The pitch still needs some work, and is easily his number three pitch right now, but he’s showing more comfort in throwing it, which is the first step toward improving the pitch.

Over the last month, the final goal the Pirates gave him was to improve the command of his off-speed stuff. He’s already started to show improvements in that area. On Sunday night, when the Tampa Yankees hitters were starting to sit on his fastball early in the count, he would throw them off by dropping in a curveball for a first pitch strike. The curve has flashed plus potential since Keller arrived, and while he still has some command issues with the pitch, it’s looking much more polished this year. The ability to throw it in a strikeout count and get a chase is easier to do. The ability to throw it for a strike early in the count is a bit more advanced, and it’s impressive that Keller is already doing this.

“He just dropped them in there,” pitching coach Scott Elarton said about the curveballs late in the game last night. “That’s a tough thing to do, especially when you’re a power guy, is to take something off and just flip it in there. When he flips the curveball, it’s still got late action. It’s fun to sit back and watch.”

As I’ve written many times in the last month, the most impressive thing about Keller late in the year has been just how dominant his fastball has been in the lower levels. It’s not just the added velocity and the ability to sit 94-97 and touch 99. It’s the fact that he commands the pitch down in the zone, and can elevate when needed to blow a hitter away. He moves the fastball all over the zone, and for most of the last month, has been dominating on that pitch alone.

“That’s amazing. He’s got a good arm and a good future,” Elarton said when discussing his velocity. “When he commands it down in the zone, it’s got some action and there’s plenty of stuff behind it. He’s a little bit deceptive. I haven’t seen him compete a lot. You can tell he’s special.”

Keller’s ability to dominate with the fastball was part of what got him a late promotion to Bradenton. In his final starts with West Virginia, he was throwing nothing but fastballs early in the game, waiting for opponents to challenge the fastball, and that never happened. He eventually had to switch to his off-speed stuff, just to get work in.

After moving to High-A, Keller kept the same approach, but had to move off the fastball a little earlier than he did in West Virginia. Still, he was dominating, using his off-speed stuff a little earlier than normal to throw hitters off, and then switching back to the fastball.

“You definitely have those more experienced hitters here, who are hunting the fastball,” Keller said. “If you make a mistake over the middle part of the plate, they’re going to hit it. Most of the time they’re going to hit it pretty good. I’ve been challenged more with the heater, knowing that I have to make a good, quality pitch with it.”

Keller’s performance this year has led to a lot of unprecedented moves. Pitching eight innings in a start at his age was one of them. Pitching this many innings in a season was one of them. Both of those accomplishments come from the fact that he was so dominant, that the innings were just easy for him. But he’s also the first high school pitcher who was promoted from West Virginia mid-season under Neal Huntington. Part of that was to give him a chance to pitch in the post-season in Bradenton, but part was because of his stuff and performance. After his first playoff start, and prior to last night’s outing, Huntington talked about what Keller continued to show in the post-season.

“For Mitch to jump from Low-A to High-A and then go compete in a playoff environment, his first handful of innings the other night, he absolutely dominated,” Huntington said. “Velocity was in the mid-to-upper 90s. He hammered the changeup. Then, he got touched up a little bit. But a great experience for him to control his adrenaline and control his emotions, especially when you’re talking about putting a young man into a club that the hasn’t really been a part of the whole year. Now he’s got to go out and be the guy. It’s a great experience for him.”

At this rate, I’m only expecting to see Keller in Bradenton for a short time next year. There are still things to work on. For example, while he’s switching to his off-speed stuff earlier to throw opposing hitters off the fastball, he’s sometimes not doing it quickly enough, and getting away with it because his stuff is so good for lower level hitters. He also needs to improve the changeup, and have more consistent control of the curveball. That will be easier in a lower level where he can dominate easily with the fastball. In short, I’m already planning on making my 2017 trip to Altoona in June, fully expecting to see Keller there when I go.

But well before the 2017 season begins, we will be putting together the rankings in the 2017 Prospect Guide. That process will start with a very important question: Is Mitch Keller the top prospect in the system? It’s a question that would have sounded crazy before the year, and might still be aggressive now, when you consider that he’s going up against Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell, and Austin Meadows. But with the way Keller has developed this year, the discussion is no longer a crazy idea, and is just a reflection of how good of a season this has been for the young right-hander.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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