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Let’s talk about how awesome Brad Keller has been

The emergence of Brad Keller has been arguably the best thing to happen to the Royals during this awful season.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Seattle Mariners Lindsey Wasson-USA TODAY Sports

Man, Brad Keller is awesome. He currently ranks 2nd among AL rookies in ERA at 2.09, he's first in HR allowed, 7th in starts made, 3rd in IP, 3rd in ER allowed, and 1st in CG. As it stands, he’d probably a top 5 candidate for AL Rookie of the Year at the end of the season.

I remember preparing for the Rule 5 Draft this past offseason over at Royals Farm Report. I was scanning through some names that I thought could be some potential targets for Kansas City since they’d be going through an obvious rebuild. I took a gander at three guys I thought could be nice additions to the Royals roster, one of them was an Arizona Diamondbacks prospect.

It was not Brad Keller. No, I wrote about Keller’s teammate Jose Almonte who had never even pitched at AA for the D-Backs. He has an incredibly explosive arm with a wild K% and I thought maybe the Royals could hide him in the bullpen while he develops. Brad Keller obviously came up on my scouting reports, but I decided to only include three pitchers in the article (I left Burch Smith off because he was supposed to be taken long before KC, I just didn’t realize the Royals would pursue a trade for him).

Brad Keller flew under just about everyone’s radar, including the very organization that he used to pitch for. You think the Diamondbacks, who are currently running out Zack Godley (5.07 ERA), Shelby Miller (11.42 ERA), and a resurgent Clay Buchholz wouldn’t like to have Brad Keller back? Brad Keller’s success at the big league level ought to have everyone stopping and giving a tip of the cap to the Royals scouting department with the way he’s throwing.

Yet, as good as Brad Keller has been (2.09 ERA, 3.18 FIP in 56 IP as a 22-year old), he obviously can't keep doing this forever. That’s a Cy Young-caliber ERA and, remember, Brad Keller jumped straight from AA to the MLB. There’s going to be a bit of an adjustment period that comes his way at some point. His K-rates have never been anything to gawk at, he may be walking a few too many hitters, he doesn’t induce a ton of soft contact (only 19.2%), doesn't have a great SwStr% (8.5%), yet, he’s limiting teams from scoring runs at an impressive clip, which is the ultimate goal. So how has he done it?

One thing that Brad Keller has done really well this year is putting hitters away when he gets ahead in the count. Let’s take a look at how Keller has done in specific counts this season:

  • 0-1: .160 BAA, .200 SLG%, 84.1 mph average exit velocity (avg. EV)
  • 0-2: .182 BAA, .182 SLG%, 80.3 mph avg. EV
  • 1-2: .200 BAA, .240 SLG%, 83.7 mph avg. EV
  • 1-0: .250 BAA, .350 SLG%, 84.5 mph avg. EV
  • 2-0: .500 BAA, .500 SLG%, 89.1 mph avg. EV
  • 2-1: .235 BAA, .235 SLG%, 88.3 mph avg. EV
  • 3-1: .375 BAA, .500 SLG%, 81.7 mph avg. EV

As you can see, Keller has done a fantastic job when he’s ahead in the count. Part of the reason for that revolves around how Keller attacks hitters when he gets up in the count. Take a look:

  • 0-1: 30.5% sliders (SL)
  • 0-2: 47.5% SL
  • 1-2: 30.2% SL
  • 1-0: 24.7% SL
  • 2-0: 3.2% SL
  • 2-1: 18.2% SL
  • 3-1: 4.3% SL

It may seem like an obvious thing, but Keller has been using his slider much more frequently when he’s ahead in the count this season. For reference, opponents are batting .230 with a .292 SLG% against Keller’s fastball this season with an avg. EV of 84.6 mph. Opponents are actually hitting .244 with an 85.7 mph avg. EV against Keller’s slider this season, but he hasn't allowed a single extra-base hit off his slider all season. He's also generated a 30.7% WHIFF% on his slider as well compared to 17.1% on his fastball.

So, obviously, Keller throws his slider more often when he’s ahead in the count and opponents don’t hit his slider as well as they hit his fastball. Is it that simple? In the words of the late, great Billy Mays, “But wait! There’s more!”

I was doing my due diligence on Keller over at Baseball Savant and something stood out to me. For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you may be familiar with my obsession with pitcher heat maps. While pure “stuff” is the key to a successful pitcher 99% of the time, every now and then we get a Jon Gray situation where the K/BB ratio and ERA don’t match up. Take a look at the heat maps for the sliders of Jon Gray and Brad Keller.

Jon Gray slider heat map
Brad Keller slider heat map

Which of those guys do you think is having more success with their slider? Yeah, it’s been Brad Keller. Let’s compare the two pitches:

  • Gray: 88.6 mph, 2,155 RPM, .245 BAA, .354 SLG%, .375 BABIP, 6.4 degree launch angle
  • Keller: 86.2 mph, 2,489 RPM, .244 BAA, .244 SLG%, .313 BABIP, 3.5 degree launch angle

Brad Keller’s slider has been filthy to be certain. He doesn’t quite throw it as hard as Jon Gray but he spins the life out of the pitch. Keeping the ball down in the zone on a regular basis has also given Keller a pretty sizable advantage when it comes to average launch angle. The goal for any slider should be to generate whiffs and ground balls, and Brad Keller has done a fantastic job of that this season, largely in part because he keeps it out of the middle of the zone.

Maintaining success as a big league starting pitcher is incredibly difficult when you only throw two pitches. Keller currently operates the majority of the time with a very potent fastball/slider combo, and while his fastball has a couple different variations to it, he’s going to need to continue to develop his changeup or add in a bigger, slower curveball to maintain this type of success. Only 2.5% of all the pitches that Keller has thrown this season have been changeups. He has not allowed a hit on the pitch yet this season and only two batters have put it in play (granted he's only thrown 21 changeups all season). He locates the pitch well,

Brad Keller changeup heat map

and gets some good depth to it as well. Should Keller’s changeup continue to develop, we could have a real, young star on our hands here in Kansas City. Until then, I'm going to have a lot of fun enjoying Keller pitch, because in a season full of woes, Brad Keller has been freakin’ awesome.