116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS - Mitch Keller is a newlywed.
He married his Cedar Rapids Xavier High School sweetheart, Clancy, this past fall, though, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and her job as an elementary school teacher in town, the two haven't had a true honeymoon, yet.
They're not even together right now. Clancy's living and working here, while Mitch is beginning a very important season as a starting pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
They'll be reunited, albeit briefly, this weekend, as Keller makes his 2021 debut Sunday afternoon against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, on his 25th birthday. Clancy will be in attendance, as will Mitch's parents, his brother and sister-in-law.
They'll be able to see each other in person, though everyone is supposed to be masked. Major League Baseball protocols won't even allow Clancy to stay in the same hotel room as Mitch.
'It's great that I get to see her, but I can't even hang out with her, and that sucks,” he said. 'Better than nothing, I guess.”
Keller hopes this summer will be better as he tries to establish himself as a legit major league pitcher. He was Pittsburgh's second-round draft pick in 2014 out of Xavier and quickly emerged as one of its top prospects.
He made his MLB debut in 2019, going 1-5 with a 7.13 earned run average in 11 starts. A strained side muscle in his second start for the Pirates of the truncated 2020 season, ironically at Wrigley against the Cubs, forced him to miss a month.
Keller returned and didn't allow a hit in his final two starts, though he did walk 10 in 11 innings. Things were rough for him this spring training, with an 11.91 ERA in five starts, though he didn't give up a run over three innings in his final start.
The stuff undeniably is there, and has been, for him to be a top-of-the-rotation guy. But he needs to put it all together sooner than later.
He knows that.
'It's just going to be all around a big year for a lot of reasons,” Keller said. 'Yeah, there's definitely some pressure. But I've come to terms with that. I mean, I'm at the highest level now, the big leagues, everyone wants to do well. I'm just trying not to put much pressure on myself just to fulfill everyone else's expectations. I feel like it's kind of like just go out there, I'm working my ass off between starts, so it's like whatever happens, happens.”
Keller's biggest issue as a big leaguer has been fastball control and command. He hasn't consistently been able to throw it for strikes, and when he has, it has gotten hit hard at times.
His breaking ball always has been his out pitch, but it's difficult to get to it when you are behind in the count.
'My fastball velocity and everything has been there (this spring),” Keller said. 'It's been back up to 96, 97 (miles per hour). But, yeah, just the command of it was a little off. I've been going through a little bit of ... mechanical work. Trying to get back to my mechanics in, like, 2018 and 2019. I'm still working on that, and it's feeling a lot better command-wise and everything. So I'm super excited about that.”
Keller said he has worked well with pitching coach Oscar Marin, whom the Pirates hired going into the 2020 season. Marin is a 'new school” guy who's big on analytics.
He told Keller to strengthen the lower half of his body in the offseason in order to produce velocity in the most efficient way possible.
'The new regime we have here is way more analytics based than the previous staff that was here,” Keller said. 'But I just think it's really good knowing where your pitches work the best and how to use them. Knowing how when your pitches are a little off, how to bring it back and stuff. That's kind of exciting. It's really good, I think. The game is going that way, and if you don't embrace it, you're behind.”
The Pirates beat the Cubs on opening day. Not much is expected of them this season, though they are building a young core that the organization hopes will bring sustained success in the future.
Keller wants to be part of that core.
'I'm just excited to be on the opening-day roster. That's something to be proud of,” he said. 'I'm disappointed in the spring I had, but I don't want to hang my hat on that. Just kind of move forward. I'm ready to go ... It's going to be a big year.”
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