At the outset of the year, the Pirates were extremely fortunate to receive amazing starts from all five members of the starting rotation. While the offense and bullpen occasionally let them down, the starters more than held up their end of the bargain.
But since PNC Park is apparently built on previously unknown Indian burial grounds, the injury curse bit the starting rotation, too. Jameson Taillon had a couple bad starts and then went out until the All-Star break with a forearm strain. Then Chris Archer had some inflammation in his thumb and missed a few starts. This led to Nick Kingham and Steven Brault taking their spots in the rotation and…that didn’t go very well. (Neither did Archer’s return to the rotation on Wednesday.)
Brault has had two starts. In just 7.1 innings, he’s given up 11 hits, 8 earned runs, 5 walks, while making Richard Rodriguez jealous by giving up 3 HR’s. Kingham has not been much better. In his starts, he’s gone just 8 innings and given up 13 hits, 9 earned runs, and 4 walks and two dingers.
With Archer back, hopefully with the rust knocked off, that leaves an opening in the rotation still. Many are clamoring for Mitch Keller to fill that open spot on Saturday that is currently listed as TBA.
Last fall, I anticipated that Keller’s pending arrival would be a hot button issue and put together this attempt to gauge when he would be up. It was more out of hope that he would be dominating AAA and not out of need for the Pirates to get a semi-functioning warm body to fill out the rotation. It should be noted that I believe if J.T. Brubaker was healthy he already would have been called up.
From that article, there are two factors still germane to this discussion right now:]
- The need for innings at AAA — In the article, I listed 100 innings as the preferred minimum threshold the Pirates would probably like to see from Keller. He had 52 last year and after a strong start this week has 40 this year. So he’s 8 innings short right now, approximately 1-2 starts.
- Super Two threshold — No one wants to hear it when the Pirates are like a man in the desert looking for a pool of water to drink. But they are this close to being safe. On May 23rd, there will be 130 days left in the season. For Super Two, in most years, the 2 year 130 day service time is the cutoff to determine whether a player gets four cracks at arbitration or just three.
So with Saturday being the 19th, coincidentally Keller’s next scheduled start for Indianapolis as well, is it worth it to start the clock early on Keller or just gut it out with another Brault start or a bullpen game?
With the damage heretofore already incurred and the theoretical finish line so close, I would probably wait until May 25th to bring Keller up. It’s a home game, albeit against the Dodgers, but it’s probably a more controlled setting. And hey, Trevor Williams got his first start against the Dodgers and it went… *checks box score* …OK, let’s get back to Keller.
It’s not like Keller has been peeling the paint off the walls in Triple A this year. He’s been ‘pretty good’, not ‘holy cow, call him up immediately great’. His K% is very strong at 28.6%, but his BB% has continued a disconcerting climb in his time in the upper minors. Last year it was 9.3% at AA/AAA and this year it’s 10.9%.
Here’s a video of one of Keller’s strikeouts this year. Good news! It’s a strikeout! Bad news is that he appears to be nibbling on the outer edges and his 94-97 mph fastball is straight as an arrow. These two items are most likely why he’s getting hit and also why he’s walking batters at a higher clip.
Keller has been working on a slider/cutter, presumably to give him an additional weapon to complement his fastball and 12-6 curve. That pitch isn’t necessarily ideal to help him with his lefty issue, though. Last year, he walked 21 lefties in 49 innings at AA and 16 in 20 innings at AAA. This year has been the same — 10 walks to lefties in 17 innings.
Would Mitch Keller in his Major League debut against a feisty Padres lineup be better than Steven Brault ? At this point, probably yes. But is it worth $10-15M in future earnings from the Pirates standpoint ? You’ll know that answer when you see who Saturday’s TBA is.