Keller flashes potential, eyes breakout 2022

April 10th, 2022

ST. LOUIS -- Mitch Keller became, more or less, a universal candidate to break out. To finally put everything together. The velocity. The stuff. The funk. It was all too enticing, too alluring to ignore. Even with mixed results thus far, Keller is, at least partially, validating the hype.

“I felt really good,” Keller said. “I thought I was commanding a lot of my pitches. Fastball felt really good, curveball and the changeup felt really good as well.”

The numbers, by themselves, were OK. Four innings. Four runs, two coming from Paul DeJong’s opposite-field homer. Four strikeouts. Two walks. The raw numbers tell a story of the 6-2 loss to the Cardinals at Busch Stadium on Saturday, but not the whole story. For that, further examination is required.

The velocity, of course, took center stage. In 2021, Keller’s average fastball velocity was 93.8 mph, the slowest of his career. On Saturday, Keller’s average fastball velocity was 96.2 mph. The fastball wasn’t the only pitch that had a velocity uptick; compared to last season, he threw everything harder.

His changeup, which he threw nine times, was up from 89.8 mph to 92.5 mph. His curveball, which he also threw nine times, was up from 78.5 mph to 81.6 mph. His slider, or “sweeper,” rather, was up a couple ticks too. The increase is a product of his time at Tread Athletics where, in short, he re-lengthend his arm action, which helped with velocity and stuff. It should not come as a surprise, then, that Keller’s called strike plus whiff rate was 32.8 percent, the sixth-highest mark of his career.

Velocity alone, of course, isn’t everything. That was apparent in the first inning, when Keller threw 12 of 23 pitches for strikes (52.2 percent). His walk to Tyler O’Neill on five pitches set the table for Dylan Carlson to score on Nolan Arenado’s double. From the first inning on, though, Keller threw 32 of 47 pitches for strikes (68.1 percent). Manager Derek Shelton emphasized the need for Keller to be more aggressive early, just as he was in Spring Training. Keller concurred. 

“The first inning there, definitely some first-game nerves,” Keller said. “From there, I felt really good with where I was at.” 

Keller’s last inning of the afternoon was a tease of what Keller could become. He retired the side in order. He struck out Dylan Carlson swinging on a high 97.6 mph fastball with nasty, last-minute run. He struck out Paul Goldschmidt on a similar pitch -- a high 97.4 mph fastball that not even the six-time All-Star could resist.

Carlson and Goldschmidt were the only batters that Keller faced three times, but his ability to not just set them down, but strike them out is worth noting. In his career, batters are slashing .374/.443/.579 against Keller when they face him for a third time. Retiring Carlson and Goldschmidt is a very small sample size; no grand conclusions should be made from a two-batter sample. It is, though, a baby step of progress. For Shelton, the inning as a whole was the afternoon’s most positive development.

“He was able to harness himself,” Shelton said. “This is a good lineup. Let’s not kid ourselves. These guys can hit. If you don’t execute pitches, they’re going to do damage. The fact that he came out in the fourth and did a good job was really a positive sign.” 

Added Keller: “I know I have that in me.”

Keller’s quote applies not to just his fourth inning; it applies to his career as a whole and where he can be versus where he stands.  

The 26-year-old has teased the ace-of-staff stuff. He hasn’t seen the ace-of-staff results. Entering his fourth season, Keller owns a career 6.09 ERA. Keller knows that he can be better. He knows that he must be better. 

His first outing of the new season didn’t yield the preferred results. But his first outing -- his fourth inning in particular -- was a peer into who Keller could become. This is an important season for Keller. His performance will have ramifications for years to come. Keller has shown a glimmer here, a flash there. He -- and the organization -- believes he can shine for a whole season. Now that the games matter, Keller will have the chance to prove he can do so.