Brad Keller was a diamond in the rough, plucked from obscurity in the Rule 5 draft after toiling away in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. The Royals didn’t have high expectations for him, but he surprised everyone by showing good poise and a terrific ground ball rate, posting the most WAR on the pitching staff.
Keller dispelled any notion his rookie season was a fluke by putting together a solid 2.2 fWAR season in 2019. In 2020, he looked even more impressive, although he was limited to just nine starts due to the pandemic and a positive COVID-19 test. Over his first three seasons, he was one of the top 40 most valuable pitchers in baseball, according to Fangraphs.
Keller got his second Opening Day assignment of his career, and his season derailed quickly. He left in the second inning, having given up nine hits, two walks, and six runs, while recording just four outs. He continued his struggles over his first six starts, giving up 25 runs in 22 1⁄3 innings with 12 walks and 16 strikeouts.
After giving up six runs in a five-inning start in Boston in late June to balloon his ERA to 6.69, Keller went over his mechanics with pitching coach Cal Eldred. Alec Lewis of The Athletic details what they found:
Essentially, when he lifted his leg and stridden toward the plate, he landed so hard that he had nowhere to go but left. Because his weight was moving glove side, his arm would fly open and ultimately find the release point late.
Throughout the season, from his Opening Day outing, a 1 1/3-inning, six earned run outing to his 1 2/3-inning, five earned run performance a few weeks later, he would attempt to overcompensate by pulling his arm as hard as he could.
Hence, the inconsistency.
Eldred had Keller work on drills to correct his throwing motion, and the results after that game were much better. In his next nine starts, Keller posted a 3.42 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 52 2⁄3 innings and just 22 walks. His velocity remained the same, but his slider usage picked up over that time, and became far less hittable. Unfortunately, he was shelved in late August with a right shoulder injury that kept him out the final month of the season.
So which Keller will we see in 2022? If the younger pitchers step up this year, perhaps that takes some pressure off Keller. On the other hand, he has more pressure to prove himself after a disappointing season with free agency potentially looming after the 2023 season.
Brad Keller has been enigmatic with his success. In an era in which every pitcher has to miss bats to find success, he has been solid with a 4.01 ERA despite having the 12th-lowest strikeout rate among 130 qualified pitchers over the past four seasons combined. Perhaps his luck has run out, but he seems like a smart pitcher, who can get by with a decent slider, good movement, and inducing poor contact. Hopefully his late-season adjustment can carry over into 2022 and we can see the Brad Keller we are used to.
What grade would you give Brad Keller for his 2021 season?
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