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Mitch Keller Learns From His Mistakes

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BEST PLAYER

The most important thing that happened to Double-A Altoona righthander Mitch Keller in the first half were his two bad starts.

Over the course of two starts—on May 9 and May 26—Keller allowed 10 runs in 10.1 innings, allowing 18 hits and three home runs. He allowed four earned runs or more in both starts, which is something he had done only once in his pro career up to that point.

But after those starts, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Keller showed the ability to make adjustments, down to the basics of his mechanics. A lights-out June led the Pirates to promote the 22-year-old to Triple-A Indianapolis on June 28. He finished his time at Altoona with a 2.72 ERA with 76 strikeouts and 32 walks in 86 innings.

"I think it was important for him to have a couple of starts that weren’t great and understand what adjustments he needed to make," farm director Larry Broadway said. "I think he got off his back side a little bit, and when he does that, the ball gets a little flatter. It gets up and elevated.

Now, Keller is better able to self-correct delivery flaws. He also picked up a two-seam changeup grip to give him a pitch to complement his mid-90s fastball and plus 11-to-5 curveball.

"It’s a groundball pitch for him,” Broadway said. "There’s not a huge (velocity) differential off his fastball, but he gets weak contact with it . . . The ball disappears at the bottom of the zone, especially against righthanders.”

BIGGEST LEAP FORWARD

The Pirates started raving about the potential of Oneil Cruz as soon as they acquired him from the Dodgers in the Tony Watson trade last July, but the degree to which he was raw became quickly apparent.

In 16 games for low Class A West Virginia he hit .218, struck out 22 times and committed eight errors at third base.

This season, however, the 6-foot-6 Dominican added direction to his prodigious power and speed as he repeated the South Atlantic League. He chased less and honed in more, which resulted in a .300/.358/.505 batting line with 10 home runs through 75 games.

"I think you just continue to see better pitch recognition and control of the zone,” Broadway said. "A lot of it has to do with the mental focus pre-pitch . . . Previously, he wouldn’t have any approach. It was just, ‘I go up there and I’m swinging.’

"It’s been fun to watch him grow into being a good hitter. And you look at his exit velocities. They’re up towards the top in all of baseball.”

The 19-year-old Cruz even assumed a more difficult defensive position—shortstop—where he showcased his athleticism and plus arm strength. He initially struggled to get his body coordinated on routine plays and posted 24 errors before the end of June, but he improved over the course of the first half.

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BURIED TREASURE

** Outfielder Jason Martin was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis along with Keller after a brilliant start with the Curve. Martin, acquired in the trade that sent Gerrit Cole to the Astros, hit .325/.392/.522 in 68 games at Double-A.

** An injured hamate bone kept outfielder Bryan Reynolds out of the Altoona lineup from April 8 to May 29 and he went hitless in his first 11 at-bats after returning. He steadily improved from June 3 to June 28 and upped his average from .125 to .263.

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