GLENDALE, Ariz.—The Pirates sent Mitch Keller to the Arizona Fall League for the express purpose of improving his changeup.
After five starts in the AFL, the Pirates No. 1 prospect can happily say he's made those desired strides.
Keller continued his AFL dominance with four scoreless innings and just two hits allowed on Friday afternoon, leading Glendale to a 3-1 win over Scottsdale at Camelback Ranch.
Keller's 93-97 mph fastball and diving 78-81 mph curveball did most of the work as he cruised through Scottsdale's order, but his new and improved changeup helped make things even easier. Mixing in that 88-90 mph changeup with sink and late fade at key points, Keller faced just two batters over the minimum, induced six groundouts and threw 41 of 55 pitches for strikes.
"I've gotten really confident with (my changeup)," Keller said. "These hitters have forced me to have use it or else I'm going to get hit pretty hard. Just to keep them off my fastball, it's just another pitch other than the curveball and it's been really successful for me. I've gotten a lot of outs and ground balls with it. I love it."
Keller, the Pirates' 2014 second-round pick out of an Iowa high school, has long been known for his comically easy velocity and hammer breaking ball. He never needed to use his changeup much as a prep or in the low minors, but his ascent to Double-A in 2017 showed him the necessity of developing that third pitch.
"I had really good confidence with it my last two starts in Altoona in the playoffs," Keller said. "That's what helped me go nine innings in Bowie (in the first round). The changeup really set the tone. I was really confident…and then I kind of lost it the first two weeks here but I kind of got it back after that. I've just been really confident with it ever since."
The changeup is still is not an especially prominent offering for Keller. He estimates he threw only eight changeups in his latest outing, and his primary out pitch was his curveball. But, in his last two AFL starts especially, he's been able to deploy his changeup effectively to both righthanders and lefthanders, giving him another weapon he can turn to in key situations.
"I think when he started here it was a 45-grade pitch and now it's 55-grade, and it's going to continue to get better," said Glendale pitching coach Connor McGuiness, a coach in the Dodgers system. "Now that he's starting to see some much, much better hitters, that pitch is really going to come into play for him."
With his changeup working, Keller has allowed only five hits in his last 13 innings in the AFL.
He is now 3-0 with a 1.37 ERA in five starts this fall, further cementing his status as one of baseball's top pitching prospects.
"Having the changeup has really opened things up for me," Keller said. "Any time you can throw a third pitch over for a strike and use it in the bottom of the zone it's going to be huge, especially when you've got a fastball up in the mid-90s coming. The velocity difference there, they're worrying about the fastball and you get a changeup, it's just a whole other aspect to worry about."
NEWS AND NOTES
—Dodgers outfielder Yusniel Diaz drilled a triple off the wall in left-center and delivered a run-scoring single to pace Glendale's offense. He finished 2-for-4, as did White Sox outfielder Charlie Tilson and Phillies catcher Edgar Cabral.
—Giants outfielder Steven Duggar homered in the sixth for Scottsdale's only run. He also drew a leadoff walk against Keller in the first, Keller's only free pass of the game.
—Yankees shortstop Thairo Estrada made multiple slick plays in the field, showing off exceptional range to his left, an arm that could make the throw to first from anywhere on the field and from different angles and release points, and smooth hands that vacuumed up everything in his vicinity.