The KC Royals have plenty of young pitching prospects, but one young pitcher seems to have found his spot.
Between now and Opening Day, the Kings of Kauffman writers are analyzing how various KC Royals performed last season and predicting how they might fare this year. Up today is starter Brad Keller.
When the KC Royals needed help in the rotation during the 2018 season, it’s unlikely many thought they would turn to the 22-year-old bullpen arm that was acquired during the offseason. Luckily, Brad Keller turned out to be exactly what they needed.
Keller was originally drafted out of high school by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2013 draft. After a few years in their minor league system, he was picked up by the Reds in the 2017 Rule 5 Draft and immediately traded to the KC Royals.
Rule 5 picks are often returned to their teams, not making it the entire year on the major league roster, but Keller was a different story.
Keller started the 2018 season in the bullpen. He pitched well to start the season, found a couple of rocky innings towards the end of April, but again found his footing, only giving up 2 runs over 15.2 innings in May.
It wasn’t long after, though, that the Royals needed help in the rotation. With a spot opened up, Kansas City decided Keller had earned a promotion and moved him into a starting role, one he was very familiar having started in the minors.
Keller answered with dominance. Other than a rough July, his monthly ERA’s for June, August, and September were all below 3. He ended the season with 140.1 innings pitched and 20 starts (41 games) holding his ERA at 3.08, FIP at 3.55, and he only gave up 7 home runs.
Keller had found his new role, and the Royals have kept him there since. In 2019, he saw some regression, but still, put up decent numbers. He pitched 165.1 innings with an ERA of 4.19, FIP of 4.35.
Luckily, he started to find his stride again in 2020. Though it was a shortened season, after dealing with COVID to begin the season there were questions about how Keller would pitch. He put those concerns to rest quickly.
Keller started 9 games and pitched 54.2 innings with an ERA of 2.47 and FIP of 3.43. He also saw a decrease in walks and gave up only 2 home runs.
Keller still has some things to prove, but at 25, he has plenty of time to grow. The 2021 season should be a good chance for him to lock in his role for a future in Kansas City.
Baseball Reference and FanGraphs projections for Keller’s 2021 season
While Baseball Reference and FanGraphs often have similar numbers for a player, when it comes to Keller, they seem to disagree on a few things. Baseball Reference projects Keller for 144.0 innings with a win/loss of 9-9, an ERA of 3.75, a BB/9 of 3.5, SO/9 of 7.4, and 13 home runs given up.
At FanGraphs, he is projected for 162.0 innings, a win/loss of 10-11, an ERA of 4.60, BB/9 of 3.52, SO/9 of 6.62, and 20 home runs given up.
What will 2021 actually hold for Brad Keller in Kansas City?
Could any of those numbers from above be true? Absolutely. It would not be surprising to see the jump in his walks and it’s unlikely his strikeouts will increase too much. He’s a groundball pitcher and will remain that way.
What seems more likely, though, is that his FanGraphs projected 162.0 innings and Baseball Reference projected ERA of 3.75 are a good grouping for how his season might play out.
Keller is going to want to prove that he can pitch deeper into games and through the entire season. He pitched 165.1 in 2019 and the goal should be to hit that mark and pass it. Where FanGraphs really goes wrong, though, is in his home runs.
They have him giving up 20 home runs. While Keller may have bounced back and forth in some stats, including homers in 2019, he still finds a way to keep extra-base hits low. The 13 Baseball Reference have as his mark is more likely, but if 2020 was any indication, he could see fewer than that.
Keller is at a point where he needs to produce to show that he is worthy of a long-term contract. It’s no doubt the Royals will be willing to sign him, but it’s likely they just want to see a little more growth out of the young pitcher.
This season for Keller will likely bring that growth. 2021 should show him taking on one of the leadership roles in the rotation, working to go deeper into games, and proving that he is the ace of the Royals pitching staff.
Brad Keller can show even more growth and potential in 2021, securing his role for the future in Kansas City.