Spring training stories are always fun, or cliché, or both. Then the season starts and writers can write about actual games rather than how good or not good of shape someone is in. In general, I do not buy into spring training narratives for this reason, they have to write about something. However, Brad Keller is one of those this year that I bought into a little during spring. He looked different, his stats looked different, and the new coaching staff gave me hope that all of the Royals pitchers could improve some. After one start, the results on Keller are mixed.
Keller only made it 4 2⁄3 innings in start one, which is less than ideal, but he only gave up two runs. He struck out six, good for an 11.57 K/9 when his career rate is 6.78. That is a very good sign, and it is carrying over from a spring where he struck out a lot more batters. On the other hand, he walked four batters to put up a BB/9 rate more than double what he had last season, and he hit a guy with a pitch too. Three of those walks were in the fifth inning, and it looked like Keller was out of gas. Hopefully, his stamina will improve as they get into the season and keep that from happening again. Like I said, it was a mixed bag.
Keller did look like a different pitcher than last year, so this is what looked different, and what to watch for in his second start. The first is that his pitch mix is very different.
From Baseball Savant.
He has added a curveball, but even more than that, it was the pitch he threw the most in start number one. I want to see if that remains a go to pitch in game two. The slider is there, but he isn’t leaning so hard on it like last year when it was more than a third of his pitches. Same with the four-seamer. Like seemingly every pitcher the last two seasons, there is now a sweeper showing up too, and the sinker usage is down, while the changeup might as well not exist anymore. That is a big change, Greinke has also had a large change in his mix. I don’t know if that is because of Driveline, where they both worked some in the off season, the new coaching, or some combination of the two. This new arsenal did change the outcomes for Keller though, and his whiff rate on the curveball and the slider were both 50%! If those two are hard to differentiate between for batters, his strike outs stand to make a large and sustained jump. His slider had the highest whiff rate for him last year at 29.2%.
Why is the swing and miss up? Movement and spin rates of course. The slider spin rate was 2541 versus its average last season of 2015, that is a massive jump in spin rate. The vertical drop on it was similar to last year, but the horizontal movement went from 5.6 inches of break to 11.8, which seems pretty good. The sweeper has a similar profile, but with even more aggressive horizontal break. The new curveball has a lot of vertical break to it, not quite Aaron Nola or Framber Valdez levels of curveball drop, but not that far away either. The new pitch will definitely play if it maintains that profile.
For reference purposes, here is a swinging strike on a slider last April. Now here is one from his first start this season:
It’s subtle, but the catcher’s mitt is in a similar place, and the balls come in at about the same angle. Look at where this year’s finishes underneath the strike zone versus last year. That little extra bit of movement makes a huge difference over hundreds of pitches.
On to velocity, which is always something to pay attention to for pitchers, so we had better take a peek at that too. His sinker and 4-seam were a little slower than last year on average, but that is probably just an early season thing. In the first few innings his velocity actually looked like it might be a touch higher. To go along with that, the velocity on his slider was also down a little bit on average, but he showed velocity above last year at times. I will be watching him over the next few weeks to see where this all levels out.
Individual pitches accumulate sample size pretty quickly, so we won’t need a lot of games to see if some of this is real. The batted ball stats take a bit longer. It is too early to start talking about exit velocities and hard hit rates for now. He faces San Francisco today who’s offense is sitting in the middle of the league in runs scored, but they had a 7 HR game that might be inflating that a bit in the early going. You have Mitch Haniger and Joc Pederson with some thump, but no one in the lineup is an elite bat. It should be a good opportunity to see how Keller’s new stuff plays against an okay offense.