How Keller went from a shaky April to one of the best stretches of his career

Right-hander showcases extra velocity over 6 strong innings as Pirates shut out Twins

June 8th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- Mitch Keller admitted postgame Friday that he didn’t know that he was pitching with extra velocity all night.

The Twins had to have seen that extra velocity. If they didn’t, Pirates manager Derek Shelton certainly did. Of the six pitches Keller regularly throws, five of them were up at least one mph compared to their season average, and it translated to results. He struck out eight over his six scoreless frames and picked up his sixth straight win, as the Pirates beat the Twins at PNC Park, 3-0.

“He weaponized it,” said Shelton of that extra heat. “He did a really good job tonight. He had to pitch out of a jam in the first, he had to pitch out of a jam in the fifth. I think we continue to see why he's a frontline starter. That's what frontline starters do.”

That fifth inning jam was the Twins’ best opportunity to score, after a walk, a bloop and an infield single loaded the bases with one out. Keller leaned on his two best pitches of the night to get out of the jam, getting Royce Lewis to chase a sinker up before Max Kepler fanned at a sweeper to get out of the jam.

There’s been plenty of buzz around the rookies in the Pirates’ rotation this year, and justifiably so. Jared Jones and Paul Skenes are special talents. But Keller is the head and leader of this rotation, and this six-start stretch he is on is one of the best of his career.

He has not allowed more than two runs in any of those outings and has gone at least six innings each time, making him the first Pirate to do so since Gerrit Cole had a streak of eight such starts in 2015. In that stretch, Keller has pitched to a 1.13 ERA (five earned runs over 39 2/3 innings). That’s on top of his streak of 44 straight starts of at least five innings, joining A.J. Burnett from 2012-13 as the only Pirates to accomplish that in the past century of Bucs baseball.

Keller is locked in and looking like an All-Star again ever since the calendar turned to May. While his March/April was hardly horrible, it didn’t meet his high standards, as he pitched to a 5.18 ERA over his first seven outings. The four-seamer velocity was also a bit lower than expected that month, averaging 94.1 mph, down a tick from his 95.2 mph average in 2023. That velocity was also hit and miss in Spring Training, but Keller has maintained he’s been pretty steady throughout.

“I’ve been feeling pretty good,” Keller said. “The numbers just weren’t there in April. I feel kind of the same. Probably more crisp now that it’s warming up. I just feel a little bit better each time out.”

That April may have caused some to be concerned that the Pirates’ ace was regressing from his 2023 All-Star campaign, but pitching coach Oscar Marin knew that it was just a blip on the radar.

“Sometimes Spring Trainings are great,” Marin said. “Sometimes they take a little bit longer. It turns out this Spring Training just took a little bit longer.”

Together, Keller and Marin made a couple of mechanical tweaks. Keller has grown stronger over the past few years, but Marin didn’t feel like he was truly using his “tree trunks” of legs to his advantage.

After some video work, they discovered the key lay with Keller’s pelvis. They aimed to get more tilt by making sure it was a little bit higher as he was going down the slope. By doing so, he created more energy with his lower half, and in turn, the velocity spiked upwards, and more consistently. Going start by start, Keller only had one outing in April where his four-seamer averaged at least 94.5 mph. In every start in May and June, it has been at least that hard, including averaging 95.8 mph Friday.

That impacts not just the fastball but also the offspeed and breaking stuff off of it. Keller got seven whiffs on 11 swings, plus four strikeouts, with his sweeper Friday.

“When [velocity] ticks up on both the fastball and the cutter, then the sweeper becomes even more of a weapon,” Shelton said.

And it helps Keller go from struggling in April to one of the game’s hottest pitchers in May and June.

“Knowing where Mitch was, that’s amazing,” Marin said. “That’s amazing. Kudos to him.”