For most of this season so far, Brad Keller has been trying to run a race while forced to carry an anvil.
He just recently reached the point where he’s able to run his race on equal footing with his opponents.
The Kansas City Royals right-hander, who turns 26 on Tuesday, will make his 21st start of the season in the second game of a four-game set against the American League Central Division-leading Chicago White Sox at Kauffman Stadium.
In recent weeks with the help of pitching coach Cal Eldred and bullpen coach Larry Carter, Keller has fixed mechanical issues with his pitching delivery that limited his command and robbed him of his typical movement on both his slider and his hard-sinking fastball.
With those pitches now behaving the way he’d come to expect, Keller has looked like a different pitcher than earlier in the season.
“It’s way different,” Keller said. “As crazy as it sounds — I’m always excited to go into starts, I’m always excited to pitch — but I feel like I’m a little bit more excited. I get to go out there and compete with what I feel like is really good, with my best stuff.
“Before, I didn’t feel like I had my best stuff. Going out there and competing without your best stuff at a level like this is pretty tough and it was definitely taxing on my mind.”
In his last three starts, Keller has gone 1-1 with a 2.61 ERA, 15 hits, eight walks and 22 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings. Opponents have batted .200 against him. All three outings were quality starts.
He pitched into the eighth inning at Cleveland on July 9, and he recorded a season-high nine strikeouts and allowed one run and four hits in 7 2/3 innings.
In his last start against the Milwaukee Brewers, Keller cruised until he ran into trouble in the fifth inning. His speed bump included a disputed bunt that appeared to roll foul but was called fair. Keller gave up three runs in the inning.
After giving up the three runs and three hits in the inning, he responded with another 1 2/3 scoreless innings.
Earlier in this season, innings like that snowballed or carried over into subsequent innings.
Confidence has been the biggest difference in Keller’s performance. Specifically, confidence that his pitching mechanics will allow him to throw the ball where he wants and with the movement that has been effective in previous seasons.
“I can actually feel the ball out of my hand and — I’m not going to say I’m pinpoint, because I don’t think I’ve ever been pinpoint in my life — but be a lot more consistent around the zone and where I want to throw the ball,” Keller said.
Retooling his mechanics started with Keller, Eldred and Carter diving into video and analytical data to find the slider he’d once had and since lost his feel for throwing.
In May, Keller felt he’d gotten it back.
That pitch has been vital to Keller’s success. In 2019, his first full season as a starting pitcher, opposing hitters batted .194 with a .316 on-base percentage with a swing and miss rate of 29.3%.
“The slider adjustment was big time, but we were still missing some pieces,” Keller said. “So we just built on that, basically.
“OK, we found that pitch, but I still didn’t quite have the fastball I had in years past. It wasn’t having the same movement, wasn’t having the same life on it.”
Now after this latest adjustment, Keller said command of the slider has actually taken another step forward in that he could use it to both sides of the plate.
Following Keller’s last start, Royals manager Mike Matheny highlighted Keller’s use of his changeup, a still-developing third pitch that he used minimally since breaking into the majors — 3.2 percent of the time according to MLB Statcast data.
“The more he throws that, the more conviction he’s going to throw it with, and it’s going to be a weapon that’s going to make everything else better,” Matheny said.
Keller has thrown the changeup six percent of the time this year.
On Monday, he explained that his flawed mechanics earlier in the season played into his reluctance to throw that pitch. He simply didn’t have command of it. It sailed coming out of his hand, and at times he saw no point throwing it when he knew he couldn’t throw it for a strike.
However in his last start, Keller threw the changeup six times. His improved confidence in his mechanics has given him confidence in that pitch.
Keller now feels like he can start focusing on the cat and mouse game with hitters instead of fighting against himself, his body and a lack of faith in his ability throw the ball where he wants.
“Now it’s like I know what I’m doing there,” Keller said pointing to his body. “Now, we can start pitching to guys and getting deep into ballgames.”