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First Pitch: Mitch Keller Looks Like An All-Star

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There’s a lot of hype surrounding the Pittsburgh Pirates’ rotation.

Featuring two of the best young pitchers in the game in Jared Jones and Paul Skenes, there is reason to get excited about this group. Jones has a 3.25 ERA in 69.1 innings in his rookie season, along with a 9.87 K/9 and a 1.95 BB/9. Skenes has only pitched 27 innings, but has a 3.00 ERA and a 12.67 K/9.

The performance from the rookies has some Pirates fans calling for All-Star selections for the duo of Skenes and Jones. That is a conversation that should begin with Mitch Keller.

On Friday night, Keller threw six shutout frames against the Minnesota Twins, allowing seven hits, walking two, and striking out eight. Keller now has a 3.16 ERA in 79.2 innings this year. More importantly, Keller has shown to be automatic as an innings eater.

All 13 starts this year from Keller have gone at least five innings. The last time Keller went less than five innings in a start was on March 30, 2023. That was his first start last year, and he’s since gone 44 outings with at least five frames.

Keller’s numbers have picked up over the last month. After a rough April, he threw a complete game on May 6th, and has a 1.13 ERA in 39.2 innings since the start of May.

He’s been pitching to Yasmani Grandal exclusively over his last five starts, after working with Henry Davis and Joey Bart in the first month of the season. Keller struggled last year after the Austin Hedges trade. He doesn’t have the elite velocity of Skenes or Jones, but Keller has a wide range of pitches, and a good ability to consistently take those pitches deep into games. His style probably needs a veteran defensive catcher more than the others, as his pitch selection requires more in-game management than the forgiving fastballs from the young phenoms.

Keller might not have the highest upside of this pitching group, but right now he’s the most reliable for innings and consistency over the remainder of the year.

The Bullpen is Coming Around

David Bednar opened the season with three blown saves in his first five appearances. He had a few other bad outings, extending into the month of May. Bednar has looked back on track for over a month now.

Since May 4th, Bednar has a 1.17 ERA in 15.1 innings across 16 appearances. He’s not striking out a lot, with a 5.87 K/9, but he’s also not walking a lot (1.17 BB/9), and isn’t giving up many hits.

During this time, Colin Holderman has stepped up as a late inning option. Holderman had good results in April, but has an 0.64 ERA in 14 innings across 14 appearances since the start of May. He’s been pitching more frequently in the eighth inning since May, with two holds in the eighth inning this week.

Both of those holds allowed Derek Shelton to use left-handed fireballer Aroldis Chapman in better situations. In Wednesday’s victory against the Dodgers, Chapman was used in the seventh inning, taking on the top of the Dodgers’ lineup, and striking out Shohei Ohtani. Holderman got the bottom of the lineup in the eighth inning. On Friday, Chapman was used in the seventh inning with two lefties coming up. This time, Holderman took on the middle of the lineup in the eighth.

The middle relief in the Pirates’ bullpen is a mess, but the Pirates have a lot of shutdown potential in the late innings with Bednar, Chapman, and Holderman.

Nick Gonzales Looks Legit

There has been a lot of focus on the 23 RBIs from Nick Gonzales in his first 25 games this year. His total ranks fourth on the Pirates, with less than half of the games of the first three hitters.

I’m not big on using RBIs to describe player value. In this case, the RBIs highlight the situational hitting from Gonzales.

What I like about Gonzales this year is that he’s making quality contact, with elite barrel rates and the ability to consistently find the sweet spot of the bat. He’s also making hard contact at an above-average rate. His bat speed is below average, at a 70.9 MPH average. He has an uncanny ability to put the bat on the ball, with elite hand-eye skills.

The biggest thing that stands out is that he always seems to find the right type of contact for the situation. In the fourth inning on Friday, Gonzales hit a sacrifice fly to center field, giving the Pirates a 2-0 lead. Gonzales took two pitches outside, before lifting a 94.6 MPH fastball to center field for the bases-loaded fly ball. The play was an easy out, but also an easy score from third for Bryan Reynolds to at least get one run.

As we saw on Thursday, Gonzales can also do damage for multiple runs. He homered off a high 97 MPH fastball, momentarily tying the third game against the Dodgers. His bat swing isn’t fast, but Gonzales seems to be doing a good job of knowing when to start his swing, and where to place it, based on his quick recognition of the pitch. He’s looking like a legitimate hitter.

Friday’s Minor League Results

Every morning I take a look at the minor league action throughout the Pirates’ system. Friday night featured nine strikeouts in eight innings from Po-Yu Chen, leading the Altoona Curve to victory.

Pirates Prospect Watch: Po-Yu Chen Strikes Out Nine in Eight Innings

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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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