PITTSBURGH — The expectations surrounding Mitch Keller right now are clear. Many in the baseball universe eagerly await the breakout start that validates the preseason hype. While there were, again, glimpses, Friday was not that night.
Keller was tagged for four runs across 3 2/3 innings in the Pirates’ 7-2 loss to the Nationals at PNC Park. He struck out four, walked three and yielded seven hits — all singles. His first two starts haven’t matched where he was at in Spring Training, but even though the results aren’t there, Keller isn’t concerned.
“I’m cool with how I’m throwing it right now,” Keller said. “I’m feeling really good. I think [they hit] seven singles tonight. I can’t do anything about some of those. You just have to keep pushing forward.”
As Keller mentioned, all seven hits that he allowed were singles. Some weren’t hit particularly hard, yet found cracks in the defense.
Josh Bell’s opposite-field single in the first inning — the last of the Nationals’ four consecutive base knocks to begin the game — wasn’t struck well at all, but found green grass with no one on the infield’s left side. The Pirates were almost perfectly shifted for Juan Soto’s fourth-inning single as well; what could’ve been an inning-ending double play instead set the table for another run.
Singles or not, the Nationals weren’t exactly tearing the cover off the ball against Keller. Washington put 14 balls in play against the right-hander. Those batted balls had an average exit velocity of 85.1 mph. For reference, that would’ve been the third-best average exit velocity among qualified pitchers last season.
“Hopefully, it’ll change here sooner than later,” Keller said. “That’s what I’m trying to do is get weak contact. To see that I’m getting weak contact is definitely a really positive sign for myself going on. I’m just rolling with it, trying to keep the weak contact up, and hopefully it’ll fall my way here soon.”
Along with the quality of contact — or lack thereof — that Keller produced, there was also his pitch usage.
In Keller’s first two innings, he threw his fastball 35.3 percent of the time (18 fastballs, 51 total pitches). In the next two innings, Keller threw his fastball 75 percent of the time (24 fastballs, 32 total pitches). In addition, the last 19 pitches that Keller threw were either a fastball or changeup. He didn’t throw a slider or curveball in the fourth inning. Keller explained that this was a product of the fastball’s effectiveness.
“We just noticed that they weren’t on my fastball through the first couple innings, so we went to the more fastball-heavy attack,” Keller said. “It ended up working out a little bit. I think my fastball was playing harder than I was throwing it, even. Just take that into the next start, too.”
Added manager Derek Shelton: “He knew he had command of [the fastballs]. We saw the velocity tick back up, just the execution of it. He probably knew he was near the end of the tank and emptied it.”
This hasn’t been the beginning that Keller desired following his phenomenal Spring Training, one that Keller called the best of his career. In two starts, Keller has allowed eight runs in 7 1/3 innings. The strikeouts are about normal (seven), but the walks are a concern (five).
Still, the start wasn’t completely doom and gloom. Keller’s average fastball velocity in the evening was 96.4 mph, right in line with where he’s been since Spring Training. If rounding up is allowed, he touched triple digits.
Keller’s changeup also warrants deeper examination. He induced seven called strikes and whiffs with the pitch, a career high. Keller’s previous career high in a single game was three, which he had in his first outing. For a pitch he seldom threw, it’s quickly becoming another weapon.
“It’s not a pitch that I’ve thrown very much,” Keller said. “This year, I’m throwing it a lot more because I think it’s a very effective pitch as we’ve seen these first two games and through Spring Training.”
The early returns haven’t been great, but the season is young. The underlying data remains encouraging. Keller has yet to dominate, but the pieces appear to be present. Come his third start in Chicago, maybe his offseason work will truly begin to bear fruit.