Keller's curve key to locking in rotation spot

Righty feels good about progress with new-look pitch; Greinke picks his spots

March 20th, 2023

LAS VEGAS -- A killer curveball? No, not exactly. But a Keller curveball? Now that might be a valuable commodity for the Royals.

is trying to make Kansas City’s starting rotation, and it could be a new curveball that he debuted this spring that helps get him there.

“I think today, honestly, was probably my best feel for it,” Keller said after a 7-0 rain-shortened loss to the Rockies on Sunday afternoon at Las Vegas Ballpark. “I got two strikeouts on it, which was big.”

Strikeouts aren’t even the goal at this point for Keller’s curve. He has mainly wanted it to function as a disruptor of opposing hitters’ timing to go along with his four-seam fastball, sinker, slider and changeup. But strikeouts are good, too.

Keller’s outing doesn’t look great if you scan the line score -- the right-hander was charged with seven runs (six earned) on seven hits and two walks to go with four strikeouts.

But Spring Training is not about linescores. It’s about progress, and Keller feels good about his after posting a 5.24 ERA over the past two seasons.

“I felt like I was pounding the zone, got ahead of everyone, and just didn’t put guys away,” he said. “The two home runs -- one of them was on an 0-2 count [a second-inning solo blast by Michael Toglia], and I gave up a lot of 0-2 or 1-2 hits. That’s obviously not what you want to do, but I’m really happy about how I felt and how I attacked. It just comes down to executing with two strikes.”

Keller has shown glimpses of what he could be in the past. In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he logged a 2.47 ERA across nine starts. But he was moved to Kansas City’s bullpen amid his struggles last year.

The Royals are hoping the new pitch in his arsenal, along with some mechanical changes he made with the help of Driveline Baseball this past offseason will result in a performance more reminiscent of 2020 than ’21-22.

“Guys like him, he’s got an interesting pitch profile,” manager Matt Quatraro said. “He’s got a ball that cuts, a ball that runs. So when it comes down to that stuff, usually it comes down to whether you’re locating or not. If it cuts in on the hands, it’s great. But if it cuts over the middle of the plate, it’s usually not a great idea.”

Kansas City’s rotation will be led this year by Zack Greinke, Brady Singer and Jordan Lyles. After that, there are questions, with seven other pitchers vying for two spots. There are several reasons to think Keller might land one of them, not least of which is his burgeoning new pitch.

“With that curveball he’s got now and how he’s getting some swings and misses on it,” Quatraro said, “I think he’s got all the ingredients.”

Greinke pivots strategy against D-backs

Back in Arizona, Greinke’s goal in the Royals’ 13-2 loss to the D-backs at Salt River Fields was to locate his fastball, but that plan quickly fell apart when he couldn’t command the pitch well. The D-backs pounced on him for nine runs in 2 1/3 innings, peppering the veteran starter for eight hits. But with so many on base, Greinke decided he would work on another part of his game: Pickoff attempts.

“I’ve been complaining, actually, that people haven’t been getting on so I can’t work on pickoff moves all spring,” Greinke said. “So wanting to work on pickoffs. That’s what Spring Training’s usually for, stuff like that.”

Greinke attempted two pickoffs when Josh Rojas singled to lead off the bottom of the third. Per MLB’s new rules, pitchers can only disengage from the rubber twice per batter (either a step-off or a pickoff attempt), and a third disengagement will be ruled a balk, unless an out is recorded on the bases. But when Greinke had two against Rojas, he knew he would try a third when Rojas took a big lead. Rojas was safe and then took second, via a balk call.

In the second inning, Ketel Marte doubled, and by that point, Greinke had pitched extensively with baserunners on. He made two pickoff attempts and then an unsuccessful third one, putting Marte on third.

“I wanted to pitch from the windup now,” Greinke said. “So I’ll just do another pickoff and let him take third and pitch from the windup. … So mainly, I was thinking about way too many things instead of getting guys out.”