Brad Keller Had Been Bad, But Yesterday Was Rad

After two starts that screamed disaster, Keller's start calms some concerns and gets the Royals a series win.

When Brad Keller struggled on Opening Day, I wanted to wait and see, but I had some very real concerns based mostly on pitch usage. When he pitched in Chicago and got lit up after getting pushed back a day, I thought there was no way he was okay. And then he went out against a depleted but still solid Angels lineup and absolutely shoved. The moral of this story is that I’m not to be trusted and I know nothing. But, uh, tell all your friends to subscribe!

I feel like I’ve been focusing on pitching performances more than anything, and that’s probably true with the offense in a bit of a funk after their hot start, but they did put up six runs to support Keller and the Royals bullpen, so I want to give a quick shoutout to them and Salvador Perez specifically who just finished off a series where he went 8 for 12 with two doubles, a home run and four runs batted in. Oh and he got his 1,000th hit on Monday night. Oh yeah, and he raised his overall line from .185/.290/.444 at the start of the series to .333/.395/.641. The start of the season is great.

But back to Keller because he was really the story of the game with everyone worried about him coming into it. I’ve talked a lot about velocity this season because it’s kind of been an interesting story with the Royals, but Keller absolutely brought it in this one. If not for Josh Staumont making an appearance, Keller would have had the hardest thrown pitches of the day. He hit 98 MPH to Shohei Ohtani in the third and 97.8 to the next batter, a guy named Mike Trout. Another pitch in the first was clocked at 97.2, so in total he threw three pitches at 97+ and averaged 94.3 for the game, which is pretty good.

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After the game, Mike Matheny talked about what made him better and I’m paraphrasing, but he basically talked about Keller trying to be too fine and make perfect pitches throughout the game. If you’ve watched a Royals broadcast for more than 10 minutes, you’ve probably heard them speak anecdotally about “trying easier” and while it can get annoying to hear them drone on about it, there’s some truth to it. Keller doesn’t throw anything straight, and that’s what makes him so interesting. So for him, aiming to a spot can be damaging.

I think it was Sam Mellinger (sorry if this wasn’t Sam), columnist for The Kansas City Star, who asked Matheny to clarify something and got the Royals manager to say that Keller might have been trying to pitch more to the scouting report of the hitter and not necessarily as much to his strengths as a pitcher. And I think that makes a lot of sense.

Obviously a pitcher needs to know who he’s pitching to and try to get the hitter out in ways that they’ve shown weakness, but it’s important to be do that within himself. As an example, it may be that a hitter struggles with changeups low and away, but Keller doesn’t really have much of a changeup. Should he be using that pitch heavily just because a hitter doesn’t do well with it? He’s still a big league hitter and a bad changeup is one that can get hit. 

I feel like in looking back at the game that Keller went back to doing what he does on the mound. Is there something of a Cam Gallagher effect? I honestly don’t think so, but I really do love watching Gallagher catch games. He’s just so good back there, and I know that every Royals pitcher swears by throwing to Perez, but Gallagher might be a really good catcher to help a pitcher get back on track if he’s struggling.

With Keller, we’ve all heard the story of how much movement he was getting and how he thought it was a problem before he finally realized he needs to let that take over. And I think he really did that in this one. It seemed that a lot of the time, Gallagher just set his glove up around the middle of the plate and waited to find the pitch. 

He’s never going to be a guy who gives you pinpoint control because of that movement, but is why he misses barrels as often as he does. Out of 17 batted balls in this one, he allowed five hard hit balls and a couple of those are almost never hits with a fly ball from Albert Pujols at an xBA of .010 and a line drive off the bat of Jose Iglesias at a .180 xBA. He didn’t allow a single barrel after allowing three in his first two starts. I thought he did a really nice job keeping the ball out of happy zones against righties. There wasn’t much in a spot they could really extend their arms and get leverage. Here’s the heat map against them:

Against lefties, I was a bit more concerned with what you see below, but outside of Ohtani, Angels lefties aren’t real threats to do much damage. He kept the ball in a spot that would tie them up at least. Here’s that chart:

If I’m being honest, I still have my eye on Keller. The slider usage is still weird to me given how much he relies on that pitch, but maybe he’s just really feeling his fastball. And why not? It was really, really good yesterday. His next test will be against the Rays, and I’m hoping I can start enjoying his starts a little more and not watching looking for signs of anything amiss. 

And just for fun, here are three of my favorite pitches of the day from him. The first is his strikeout of Ohtani in the first and the next two are the back-to-back strikeouts of Trout and Jared Walsh to get him out of a bases loaded jam in the third.


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The Roster Management Confuses Me

When the Royals activated Josh Staumont from the injured list (it was definitely related to something about Covid), they had to make a move because the 40-man roster was full. There’s an easy move sitting out there with Daniel Tillo out for the majority of the season, if not the whole season. He can be moved to the 60-day injured list and open up that spot. But they continued to not do that, instead designating Nick Heath for assignment. In the interest of openness, I like Heath a lot and think he can bring as much to the roster as Jarrod Dyson, so I don’t love that move from that standpoint, but also, why dump inventory when you don’t have to? It just doesn’t make sense to me at all.

I am glad they optioned Carlos Hernandez, though, as part of the move because he’s just not good enough right now. My good friend and colleague Clint Scoles has mentioned his long arm motion as something that makes command difficult to replicate appearance to appearance and I totally agree. I also think he just needs more competitive innings against players who aren’t the best in the world. With stuff like he has, he’ll get another shot, but this is absolutely the right move. 

Isbel’s First Chance Looks to be Ending Early

When it became apparent that Kyle Isbel had a good chance to make the Opening Day roster, it was met with excitement. He’s a relatively high round draft pick who was so good in the spring that he forced the Royals hand. And now he’s sat for two straight days with righties on the mound heading into a series with the Blue Jays that’ll likely feature three lefty starters. Even yesterday when the Royals pulled Jorge Soler for defense, they went with Dyson over Isbel. I think the writing is on the wall, and while Isbel has looked overmatched with so many strikeouts, the contact he has made has been quality. And more than anything, he’s started seven games. 

I’m not in the clubhouse to see how he looks and maybe they think he’s starting to press and is going to get into his own head. If that’s the case, fine, but I just don’t really understand the thought of giving him this opportunity and then pulling the plug so quickly. With all those lefties on the mound for the Blue Jays, the Royals have a few options. They could put either Whit Merrifield or Hunter Dozier in right and play Hanser Alberto, which seems like a possibility. Or they could recall Edward Olivares and get a look at him. Either way, it sure seems like Isbel’s first chance is about over, but we’ll see him again.