Armed with data, Keller working on fastball spin

Frazier in mix at second base, designated hitter

July 7th, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- referred to the past few months as a “second offseason” twice on Monday, but the Pirates’ top prospect didn’t actually take much time off.

While baseball was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, Keller assigned himself two pitching projects. He wanted to improve his fastball’s spin direction and spin efficiency, and he set out to find an effective changeup. Armed with his own Rapsodo inside an empty facility near his home in Iowa, Keller went to work.

"That was the main point when going back home. We don't want to lose anything that we had gained, because we made some good strides in Spring Training,” Keller said on a Zoom call. “We didn't want this to be a setback. We wanted to be able to use it as a point where I can go forward, and I think I really used this time back home to further my game.”

Keller has worked with the Rapsodo tracking technology before, but he essentially only used it to ensure that his pitches were moving the way they had in previous seasons. But this spring, analytically minded pitching coach Oscar Marin helped Keller understand what the Rapsodo data meant and how he could alter his arsenal to change those numbers -- and his performance -- for the better.

"Once we left Spring Training to go back home, I had a plan in my mind [of] where I want my numbers to be and what I need them to look like to be successful here,” Keller said.

Keller focused on the spin of his fastball, improving his spin efficiency from the lower 90th percentile to around 95 percent. He’s tinkered with changeup grips and continues to do so, looking for another offspeed pitch that will complement his fastball, slider and curveball.

“We’re talking about a 23-year-old kid who has a really bright future,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “The spin-rate thing is something you can continue to enhance. He has the ability to do that naturally. We have to maximize that. The changeup is a development pitch for any young starter. Usually, guys have either the breaking ball or the changeup when they come in and they develop the other one. He’s still working on it. His feel to pitch is pretty good, and a changeup is a feel pitch.”

Keller threw three innings in a simulated game at PNC Park on Sunday, and he’ll continue his progression through Summer Camp with an eye on a spot in the Pirates’ Opening Day rotation. He’s had to wait a little longer than expected to get back on the mound and leave last year’s shaky debut in the past, but his hope is that he’s better equipped to do so now than he was before his second offseason.

“It's going to be different,” Keller said. “I'm just really excited we're getting going here and back at PNC and we're playing."

Frazier at second, in the DH mix
The Pirates have a lot of middle-infield options in big league camp, including , Kevin Newman, Erik González, JT Riddle, Cole Tucker and Phillip Evans. But if everyone’s healthy, Shelton said you can expect to see Newman and Frazier return to their starting roles this year.

Newman established himself as the everyday shortstop during his first full season, and National League Gold Glove Award finalist Frazier isn’t going anywhere at second base -- unless he’s the designated hitter, that is. Shelton indicated that the Pirates have no plans to send the versatile Frazier to the outfield, but he’ll be part of their DH rotation this season.

“I would assume he’s going to get some DH days, because it gets him off his feet. Prefer to keep his bat in the lineup, especially if there’s a right-handed pitcher on the mound that day,” Shelton said. “Chance to keep him fresh. We’re going to bounce through the DH for a bunch of guys. I would say he’s one of the guys we would bounce through.”

Frazier, who spent the past few months working out in Starkville, Miss., said he would have no problem spending some time as Pittsburgh’s DH. The Pirates don’t plan to have a regular designated hitter, instead cycling everyday players through that spot.

Frazier led the Pirates with 152 games played last year despite being limited by early-season injuries, so he won’t be asking out of the lineup much in a shortened season.

“Nobody dislikes being a DH, I can tell you that. It’s really just a refresher for your legs, that kind of deal,” Frazier said. “With the 60-game sprint, I’m sure some guys are going to need a day for their legs here and there. I’ll be ready to play. If he wants to tell me to DH, I’ve got no problem with that. Just being in the lineup, it doesn’t matter if it’s second, left, right, DH, I don’t really care.”

Testing update
While a few teams had to cancel their workouts on Monday due to delays in the COVID-19 testing process, Shelton said the Pirates were only waiting for a “couple” pending results from the 40 players they have in Pittsburgh. The club previously confirmed that reliever Blake Cederlind and outfielder Socrates Brito tested positive for COVID-19, and Shelton said the team went through another round of testing on Sunday.

“Fortunately with our big league club, with the exception of a couple people we've had, our results have been pretty rapid in terms of getting back,” Shelton said.

However, the delay has affected their alternate training site in Altoona. Shelton said “a few” of the 19 players on the Altoona camp roster were tested in Pittsburgh, but he added that the Pirates have not yet begun workouts at their satellite camp as they are still waiting on “the majority of those tests to come back.”