If all innings are not created equal, the Pittsburgh Pirates might want to fast-track Mitch Keller after his stunning performance in the Arizona Fall League
The Pittsburgh Pirates know what they have in starting pitching prospect Mitch Keller.
Others know it, too. MLB Pipeline has Keller rated as the 18th best overall prospect in baseball, and the sixth best right handed pitcher currently in development.
And you, too, likely know the name. By now, you had better know the profile. A 93-97 mph fastball, a hammer curve, and now a coveted third pitch to boot. He has excelled at every level the Pirates have thrown him at. The club’s aggressiveness in moving him through the system is a far cry from the temperate (not temperate enough?) pace at which Tyler Glasnow snaked his way to the majors. And Keller’s current pace likely won’t match Gerrit Cole‘s stratospheric rise during the 2012 minor league season.
Even so, Keller and Cole have something in common, that being the great benefit that pitching in the Arizona Fall League has afforded them.
Quality of innings is a real thing
Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has repeatedly been quoted as subscribing to the belief that all innings — when it comes to pitchers — are not created equal.
Whether it be “stress innings” for relief arms, the cumulative effect of those same stress innings on starters or simply the benefits of more Triple-A innings for a young hurler, Huntington is locked on to the theory that different types of innings can mean many things.
Certainly, innings thrown in the Arizona Fall League — where teams often send their best young hitting prospects — can be thrown into their own little special bucket.
But don’t take our word for it. Cole himself, who was famously unable to pitch in the minor leagues in 2011 due to signing too late, intimated as much to the late, great Tom Singer of MLB.com back in 2014:
“It was my first pro ball experience, and I got to face some good hitters,” Cole said. “Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, a handful of other top guys. I enjoyed facing guys like that in that environment, which was pretty relaxed. I mean, good players, but it is offseason baseball, so it was more relaxed. Being able to see how it [Cole’s delivery and stuff] plays with big league-caliber hitters was very helpful.”
Based on Cole’s comments alone, we can see that pitching in the Arizona Fall League can do wonders for a young hurler.
What should excite Pittsburgh Pirates fans is this: Keller is not just accumulating innings in the AFL, he is dominating them.
In five AFL starts, Keller has posted a 1.37 ERA while hitters post a paltry .132 batting average against him. Though he is striking out just 5.7 hitters per nine (and even that may be a function of the way that teams split pitching time amongst starters), Keller has not allowed more than two earned runs or three hits in any of his starts.
What does this mean for the Pittsburgh Pirate going forward? One would hope that it would mean the club would at least start the year at Triple-A Indianapolis. His performance in the AFL combined with his wonderful showing at Double-A Altoona — which included more of, you guessed it, those quality innings during the Curve’s run to the Eastern League championship — should more than seal the deal on that front.
And from there? Who knows. Pittsburgh Pirates brass might fall into the trap of over-analyzing their young stud pitching prospect much in the same way that some feel they treated the last one.
But this much is known: Keller has no such limitations. The stuff is already there. The third pitch is already there. The makeup and mechanics are already there.
And now, the quality of innings are already there.
Provided a complete crumbling at the Triple-A level, these innings that Keller has put behind him may now illuminate the path ahead of him.
Could that be a depth SP option for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the back half of 2018?