2020 Vision: What the Heck Happened to Mitch Keller?

Written by: Ray Butler

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With the 2019 regular season now in the rearview mirror, it’s only right that I already found myself neck-deep in research in preparation for the 2020 season. This has been a banner year for Prospects 365. Next year will be even better.

With that in mind, I’m hoping to publish some of my findings—as I find them—this offseason. The goal is to answer some lingering, industry-wide questions, uncover some super sleepers for next season and caution you on the fool’s gold that everyone will be falling for next spring. Each write-up will be more ‘to the point’ than long-form, so I promise to not keep you from your precious fantasy football rankings for too long.

I have my cheesy series title and I’m ready to write. I hope you find these write-ups beneficial as you begin to prepare for the 2020 season.

Let’s not sugar coat this: from the outside looking in, Mitch Keller was statistically horrific as a big league pitcher in 2019. Outside of the strikeouts, a line of 48.0 IP, 72 H, 38 ER, 16 BB, 65 K (good for a 7.13 ERA and 1.83 WHIP) in 11 starts is jaw-droppingly bad. Bad enough that Keller will likely be completely omitted from a lot of people’s fantasy draft boards—regardless of league size—prior to Opening Day 2020.

From a stock standpoint, there’s blood in the streets in regard to Mitch Keller. That means the time to buy is now, and there’s plenty of data and theory to support this notion. Let’s dive in.

Despite the angst of the surface stats, you don’t have to dive too deep to feel a little better about Keller’s first big league sample. The 7.13 ERA (and 1.83 WHIP) might be why your league mates might be interested in selling the 23-year-old this offseason, but the 3.19 FIP and 3.47 xFIP are two of the reasons it’s fairly easy to believe better days are ahead.

Then we glimpse at the Statcast numbers…..

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For the most part, these are deeply impressive numbers. The right-hander relied on his fastball to account for 59% of his pitches this season, so it’s at least somewhat reassuring to see fantastic velocity and spin rate associated with the pitch. Perhaps most surprising is the fact that despite allowing 72 hits in 48 innings pitched, Keller actually ranked above average in Exit Velocity, Hard Hit %, xwOBA and xSLG.

It was at this very moment I peeked at the 23-year-old’s BABIP—only to laugh out loud. It was .475!!!!!! To give you an idea of how anomalous that number is, if you lower qualifications to 40 IP, Keller’s BABIP leads all big league pitchers… by 61 points (Corbin Burnes, who I’m sure I’ll write-up at some point this offseason, had a BABIP of .414 in 49 IP this season). When you consider Keller posted favorable Exit Velocity and Hard Hit %, it becomes fairly hard to quantify just how unlucky the right-hander was in 2019.

Keller boasts a four-pitch repertoire, ranging from a four-seam utilized nearly 60% of the time to a changeup that’s simply a show-me pitch (h/t Baseball Savant).

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Despite Keller’s fastball velocity and spin rate, the pitch got hit around the park at will throughout 2019, posting a .499 wOBA and mind-blowing .591 BABIP. Once again, the offering’s xwOBA points to more misfortune, but lack of fastball command might lead to the 23-year-old continuing to see perplexing results when you consider the pitch’s data. Here’s a holistic breakdown the right-hander’s pitch outcomes this season (h/t Alex Chamberlain THA GAWD).

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Check this out. When you eliminate some of the noise and raise the minimum threshold to 400 pitches, no single pitch in the MLB had a larger disparity between wOBA and xwOBA than Keller’s four seam fastball (.499 and .346 respectively). That seems substantial and significant. When ranking by wOBA (minimum count: 400), Keller’s fastball ranks 237th out of 240 qualified pitchers. When ranking by xwOBA (same threshold), the right-hander jumps to 124th. He doesn’t suddenly become Gerrit Cole or Blake Snell, but it’s certainly more respectable. At minimum, the 23-year-old should benefit from better outcome luck next season. The best case scenario would be Keller improving his fastball command, which would likely lead to the pitch becoming the absolute terror that Statcast predicts it could be.

Before his big league debut, some scouts believed Keller was destined for the bullpen due to lack of variety in his arsenal. Specifically, a lot of the detractors thought the right-hander’s lack of a reliable changeup would be his undoing in the rotation.

Despite those concerns, it’s easy to be optimistic when evaluating a pair of the right-hander’s non-fastball offerings. Keller threw his slider 21% of the time in 2019; the pitch produced a .228 wOBA, ranking 90th amongst 353 pitchers who threw the pitch at least 100 times (24th among starting pitchers). Even better, its .220 xwOBA ranked 80th (21st among starting pitchers). From an OBA standpoint, Keller’s slider in 2019 was nearly identical to that of Gerrit Cole, whose slider posted a .225 wOBA and .217 xwOBA during the regular season. I think we’re all aware of how good Cole’s slider is. Based on results, Keller’s was equally dynamic.

Staying in the wOBA state of mind, Keller’s curveball was his best pitch this season. Unfortunately, the 23-year-old only threw the pitch 16% of the time. The right-hander’s curveball wOBA of .179 ranked 21st amongst 202 pitchers who threw the pitch at least 100 times during the regular season. When you remove relievers, Keller’s curveball ranked 8th amongst starting pitchers according to wOBA. The sample size is smaller, but the 23-year-old reaped better results with the pitch than starters like Charlie Morton, Yu Darvish, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Greinke. On average, there was a 6 MPH disparity between the right-hander’s slider and curveball. The batted ball luck was so poor that we can’t spot split concerns at the MLB level with much validity, though Keller actually allowed a lower BA to left-handers in the minor leagues this season (.238) than right-handers (.247).

In summation, Keller was extremely unlucky as a big league pitcher in 2019. As a matter of fact, a strong argument can be made the right-hander was the unluckiest pitcher in the sport this season. As I stated above, the fastball outcomes will improve next season. That’s a given. But without a tick-up in fastball command, I’m unsure if the outcomes will ever genuinely represent a pitch with such fantastic velocity and spin rate.

We’ve established the fact Keller possesses two secondary-pitch weapons in his slider and curveball. If the fastball command remains mediocre, the right-hander should certainly throw his secondary pitches more (he combined to throw his slider and curveball 37% of the time in 2019. Unless the fastball command ticks-up, a strong argument can be made that the slider + curveball usage should be 55-60% or higher moving forward). Amongst starting pitchers with at least 40 IP in 2019, Keller’s SwStr% of 11.8% ranks 45th (above pitchers like Eduardo Rodriguez, Brandon Woodruff, Frankie Montas and Chris Paddack amongst others). Optimizing command and pitch usage would certainly lead to more whiffs in 2020 and beyond.

With manager Clint Hurdle being fired and pitching coach Ray Searage reportedly next on the docket, one can only hope the Pirates hire a forward-thinking pitching coach who can help Keller maximize his fastball command, pitch usage and overall potential.

The 23-year-old will be available for extremely cheap next spring in redraft leagues. In the recent #2EarlyMocks, Keller had an ADP of 312.5 in six different drafts. That’s in the Ryan Braun/Dylan Cease/Brian Anderson range. In one league, Keller wasn’t selected until pick 416. That’s basically free of charge, which is fairly unbelievable for a young starting pitcher who should have an extremely long leash and, barring injury, will certainly improve statistically in 2020.

In keeper and dynasty leagues, I suspect you can currently acquire Keller for an approximate price of a back-end top-100 prospect. If you can acquire the right-hander for someone like Evan White, Brandon Marsh or Ryan Mountcastle, you should almost certainly pull that trigger.

Keller is a prime candidate to benefit from a bounceback campaign in 2020, and with better batted ball luck and unquestioned strikeout viability (not to mention the chance for improved fastball command or better pitch usage), there’s no reason he shouldn’t have back-end value in mixed leagues next season.

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Featured image courtesy MLB.com

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