I met Brad Keller when I was pitching in the Royals organization. He was the new face that everybody was talking during the first few weeks of spring training 2018. He’s a large guy, can drive a golf ball a mile, and seems like a genuinely good person. Here’s my take on him as a pitcher.
The Rule 5 draft is one of the most fascinating storylines to follow each season. It is a chance, in the most unadulterated sense, for one organization to dominate another in a lopsided transaction. Of course, the idea at the heart of the Rule 5 is to reward players talented enough to play in the major leagues who may not have a clear path to the bigs in their own organization — but this is a fun little side effect. After one team deems a player not valuable enough to protect from the Rule 5 draft, other scouting departments have the chance to evaluate whether this player could be of service to their major league team now and in the future. Most times, the player is returned to the original team and not much of note occurs. However, every so often, something remarkable happens, and an under-appreciated player gets his opportunity and makes the most of it. That is the case with the Royals and Brad Keller, their de facto ace.
Taken with the fifth pick in the 2017 Rule 5 draft, Keller was a revelation last year, giving the Royals a reason to smile while they trudged through a 104-loss season. Keller made 20 starts for the Royals in 2018 after earning a spot in the rotation following a solid stint in the bullpen. He worked 140.1 innings to the tune of a 3.08 ERA and 2.6 wins above replacement. Not bad for someone who hadn’t pitched above Double-A prior to making his major league debut.
It looked like Keller had all the makings of a quality major league starter after being raved about by the Royals for his work effort and competitiveness. Here’s what Royals backstop Martin Maldonado had to say to the Kansas City Star about the 2019 Opening Day starter: “He’s a guy that goes out there and competes. Every pitch that he throws is with meaning. He’s got that mentality of go get ‘em. That’s a guy you can see in his face when he’s about to throw a pitch that he’s locked in to execute a pitch.”
If that’s the case, then where’s the disconnect? Why hasn’t Keller been able to replicate his success from 2018 so far this season? Is he actually a quality No. 2 or No. 3 starter, or is he destined for the back end of the rotation or a spot in the bullpen? Let’s dive a little deeper into Keller’s numbers to see if we can find out what’s different this year.
2018 vs. 2019
Keller has thrown 86 innings in 2019, a little more than half of his workload in 2018. It seems like a poetic time to check in and compare the two seasons, with there being ample time for Keller to turn things around.
Two numbers immediately stand out when you look at Keller’s traditional pitching statistics. The first is obvious — he’s second in the league in walks with 43. Last year he walked 50, meaning he’s giving free passes to 3% more hitters than in 2018.
The second is a number that has actually stayed the same. Last year, Keller struck hitters out at a rate of 6.2 K/9. This year he’s been almost identical, dipping just under 6.1 K/9 after his last start. That’s not good… that’s not good at all. If you’re not taking advantage of the increased swing-and-miss in today’s game, it is eventually going to come back and bite you. Low strikeout rates aren’t sustainable even for a ground-ball pitcher like Keller, who has managed to avoid the other hallmark of modern baseball: He’s only given up four homers this year.
There were 23 qualified starters (162 IP) who had an ERA under 3.50 in 2018. Of those starters, only two had a K/9 under 7.00, and Keller’s rate was significantly lower than both of theirs. Not surprisingly, the top five ERA leaders all struck out more than a batter per inning. Strikeouts, as we know, are a solid indicator of success. It appears that Keller was headed for a sophomore slump based on these two numbers alone, but is there more to it than boring old walks and strikeouts?
Let’s take a look at each of his pitches to see how his stuff in 2019 stacks up to his rookie campaign.
Keller’s four-seamer has taken a step back this year. His average four-seam velocity has dropped from 94.3 mph to 92.9 mph. Sure, his 2018 numbers may be inflated because of his innings in the bullpen at the beginning of the season, but that’s a pretty significant drop for a 23-year-old. Interestingly, Keller’s four-seamer actually has the characteristics of a cutter. It has significant horizontal movement, which makes it an interesting pitch that could potentially be utilized differently to greater effect.
Keller’s sinker has almost identical spin rate and vertical drop in both 2018 and 2019. It’s a true sinker, and hitters are still pounding it into the ground, although much harder this year with an average exit velocity of 90.0 mph compared to 86.2 mph in 2018.
The slider has been better this season, as it’s spinning faster and moving more both horizontally and vertically. It has many of the characteristics of a plus pitch, as seen below, and it’s not surprising the improvements have reduced opposing hitters’ average against it from .221 to .172.
Keller’s changeup was always a distant fourth pitch, but it’s essentially non-existent in 2019, as he’s throwing it just 1.6% of the time.
How Keller Can Improve
It would appear that Keller’s slider is the only pitch that has taken serious strides forward, becoming a true plus pitch. The logical next step would be to throw this pitch more often. And in fact, Keller has, upping its usage from 26% to 35%. So maybe he’s leaving it up in the zone? Wrong again.
I actually prefer the location in 2019. Not only is he throwing it for strikes more regularly at the bottom of the zone, but his misses threaten the zone more too. So why is it that hitters barreled 4.6% of pitches against Keller in 2018, but they are doing so at a 6.8% clip this season? His first-pitch strike percentage is down, from 59% to 57%, but it was never good in the first place. Overall, Keller does not get himself into advantageous counts. His lack of command is a root issue, not the type where a four-pitch walk comes out of nowhere and has no bearing on a pitchers ability to throw strikes before or after it occurred. The truth of the matter is Keller has poor command, and his near-league-worst 59% strike percentage seems to highlight it.
When the name of your game is pitching to contact, you have to be a strike-thrower. If you consistently get behind and don’t have the ability to miss bats to get back into counts, the contact you do create will be loud.
Looking at him on paper, Keller has four pitches: a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a slider, and a changeup. His rare use of his changeup means we can basically eliminate it, leaving us with two fastballs and a slider. His four-seamer profiles a bit like a cutter, and his sinker is a true sinker, so they are definitely different pitches, but their velocities are only 0.7 mph apart.
I would say Keller effectively has 2.5 pitches. It’s very hard to succeed this way as a starter if your two pitches aren’t filthy. While they are solid, this is exactly the type of guy who needs another quality pitch, something Keller just doesn’t quite have yet.
In short, 2019 Brad Keller is more like the 2018 version than he is different. His 2018 numbers look to be on the fortunate side, and his 2019 numbers have plenty of room for improvement. I think his true ability lies somewhere in between. On a good team, Keller looks like a No. 4 starter who has the chance to eat up innings and be part of a formula for success. Keep in mind that he’s faced either the rebuilding White Sox or Tigers in 6 of his 14 starts, so things could get ugly for Keller if he doesn’t start to limit the free passes.
Developing a changeup should be a point of emphasis for Keller, or he could eventually be returned to the bullpen, where Ben Clemens recently pointed out he probably belongs. However, because of Keller’s age and organization, he should be given a longer leash to try to figure it out as a starter.
The Royals should be thrilled with their acquisition, as the D-backs may have let a solid big leaguer slip away, but he is probably not the type of franchise-altering player the Royals media would like to have you believe he is.
Ex Minor League Baseball player with the KC Royals. Pitched with team Israel in 2017 WBC. Stanford Grad 2016.