116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Cedar Rapids native Mitch Keller beginning to put it all together in Major League Baseball
Xavier grad gets starting-pitching nod on opening day Thursday for Pittsburgh Pirates
CEDAR RAPIDS — The routine remained the same for Mitch Keller.
He threw a little bit, loosened up his arm Wednesday afternoon at Great America Ballpark in Cincinnati. The plan was to have a nice dinner Wednesday night with his wife, Clancy, then watch some TV, relax and get to bed a little earlier than normal.
It’s what the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher and Cedar Rapidian does before each one of his starts. Keeping in mind, this one is a little more special.
A lot more special considering Keller is Pittsburgh’s opening-day dude.
“Only 30 guys in the whole world get to start on opening day,” Keller said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. “So, yeah, it’s a pretty cool honor. Really cool for all the hard work and stuff I’ve put in to get back to being good. Being a good baseball player again, I guess you could say.
“For a few years, I wasn’t as good as I hoped I’d be. Just pushing through. Checking off one of these (boxes) is really cool.”
Keller, 26, returns to a mound where he made his big league debut four years ago. He gave up six runs in the first inning, an unfortunate harbinger of things to come.
A second-round draft pick of the Pirates in 2014 out of Xavier High School, the right-hander rocketed through the minor leagues, was on everyone’s list of top prospects in the game. But he pitched to a 7.13 earned run average in 11 starts for the Pirates in 2019, walked more than he struck out and got injured in the truncated 2020 season and got lit up again (5-11 record, 6.17 ERA) in 2021.
All of a sudden, he was considered a failure, a can’t-miss prospect who missed. He worked on regaining velocity that offseason, found it and had a great spring training last year.
The hope was he’d finally turned a corner. But Keller struggled when the regular season began and was taken out of the Pirates rotation after back-to-back poor starts in early May against the Reds.
“I had a really good spring, and things were just not going well the first month of the season. It was like ‘What the (heck)? I was supposed to be good,’” he said. “I knew I’d been really good in the spring, and then I wasn’t in the season. What the hell? Why? You just start searching for answers, and there’s not many answers out there. So it was like ‘What can we do to change it?’”
For Keller, it was rediscovering a slider, an important pitch for him coming up through the minors. And it was developing a sinker.
Though he was throwing his fastball in the middle to upper-90s, it was a relatively straight pitch.
“I always threw a slider, but I just kind of lost it there for a year and a half. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t consistent,” Keller said. “That’s when I started throwing more of a sweeping slider and the sinker, all in the same time frame. Then it took me about a month or so to figure out how I was going to use those pitches in games. It just kind of morphed into that’s what I do.”
The results started coming. He had a 2.61 ERA in five July starts, finished very strongly in September and lowered his season earned run average to 3.91.
This spring training also went well, leading to being given the opening-day assignment.
“Finding a mentality of just attacking hitters again,” Keller said. “That comes with confidence. You can’t just create confidence out of nowhere. So just having a positive attitude every day and taking the little successes of every day and building them off each other. You need some good luck to happen during a season, too, to keep things going, so it was sprinkling in some good luck. Making some good pitches, quality pitches, executing. It writes a really good story there.
“I think I’m in a way better spot of not worrying about mechanics anymore. I feel like I’m in a really good spot with my mechanics. Now it’s just focusing on pitch design and executing pitches.”
Keller said his performance goals this season include making 30-plus starts and throwing more innings than he did last season. He’d love to be an all-star, wants to be a guy who gives his team a chance to win whenever he pitches.
He was asked if he finally considers himself a bonafide major league starting pitcher.
“That’s a tough question,” he said. “I think I’m very capable of being a really good starter, but I don’t want to say I’m quite there. I don’t know if I ever will.”
Comments: (319)-398-8258, email@example.com