Minor League Sports

On the cusp of big leagues, Mitch Keller continues to hone his pitching (and hitting) skills

Right-hander from Cedar Rapids is top prospect of Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates pitching prospect Mitch Keller. (USA TODAY Sports)
Pittsburgh Pirates pitching prospect Mitch Keller. (USA TODAY Sports)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Mitch Keller had just finished taking some batting practice late Saturday afternoon in the indoor cages at Indianapolis’ Victory Field.

Gotta do everything you can to keep that gaudy OPS.

That stands for On-Base Percentage Plus Slugging Percentage, if you’re not aware. The former Cedar Rapids Xavier prep’s OPS is at 1.000 right now, higher than what Bryce Harper has produced in his career, if you’re looking for some sort of perspective.

“Hit off the machine today, which was tough,” Keller said. “We were hitting velo, so it was, like, 95.”

He has only had three at-bats this season, roping an RBI double down the left-field line the other day in Indy’s win over Louisville. Hence the sky-high OPS.

Pitchers hit in the National League, obviously, so when two NL-affiliated teams play each other in the Triple-A International League, guys like Keller can get in some swings. For better or worse.

“We hit a lot in spring training, then when we get to our affiliates, we hit like we did today, take a round or two of BP or something,” Keller said. “It’s fun, definitely way, way harder than it was in high school. You’ve got guys throwing mid-90s, sliders and curveballs. It just happens so fast.”

Speaking of fast, it’s hard to believe this is Keller’s sixth year of professional baseball. The time has seemed to fly by since he was Pittsburgh’s second-round draft pick in 2014, signing a contract with a cool bonus of $1 million.

Since then, the 23-year-old right-hander has been on virtually everyone’s prospect radar.

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Baseball America has him listed as the Pirates’ top-overall prospect and its No. 6 right-handed pitching prospect. Baseball Prospectus has him ranked 18th overall in the minors, saying he has the potential to be a No. 2 starter in a big-league rotation.

If everything goes as it has been, he should make his Pittsburgh debut at some point this season. He knows he has to continue to take care of work in the minors, but there’s no question he can taste the major leagues at this point.

“I feel like if I got the call today, I could go up and compete, be ready and help the team win,” Keller said. “But they’re pretty hush-hush, don’t really tell you much. Everyone that talks to me is just ‘Hey, keep going. When that time comes, it’ll come. You’ll be ready for it.’ I’m pretty excited.”

Keller is 3-0 in six starts for Indianapolis, with a solid earned run average of 3.48. His last four starts, in particular, have been encouraging.

He gave up one run over 5 1/3 innings April 16 against Toledo and followed up that start with six shutout innings against Louisville. He struck out 10 in an April 27 start at Charlotte and gave up six hits and a pair of runs (both in the first inning) in a six-inning stint last week against Louisville.

His strikeout total of 38 in 31 innings is outstanding.

“I thought my first couple starts were good, but the numbers didn’t show that as much,” he said. “My last four have been really solid. I’m really happy where I’m at. Started throwing a slider, too, so that has been really cool.”

That has added a fourth pitch to his arsenal, to go along with a mid-90s fastball, plus curveball and changeup. Sometimes guys have difficulty throwing both a curve and slider, but Keller said he has different grips on the pitches and thus has not had issues.

On the Pirates’ 40-man major league roster, he took part in his first big-league spring training camp in March. His numbers there weren’t particularly good and he was sent pretty early back to minor-league camp.

But that was no big deal.

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“The results I had in spring training weren’t good, but it was spring training,” Keller said. “You are trying to fine tune everything and get ready for the season. You just use that time to get ready. You can’t really hang your hat on numbers in spring training that much. Especially when I knew I wasn’t going to break camp with the team right away. So I was just using that time to watch the other guys, see how they go about their business, how they do things. Get familiar with everyone, the staff. Just make sure I was ready to go for the season.”

That kind of mature attitude endeared him to the Pirates.

“They just told me to keep being who I am,” he said. “Go out and just compete like I can. They told me not to worry about my stats, that when the time comes, when I’m ready, they’ll be ready to bring me up. I’ve just got to be ready and stay true to the course.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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