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Former Royals starter Keller ‘getting accustomed’ to bullpen


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Kansas City Royals pitcher Brad Keller delivers to a Boston Red Sox batter during the first inning of a baseball game in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

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Over the weekend at Boston’s historic Fenway Park, Brad Keller tossed the second of back-to-back scoreless relief outings for the Kansas City Royals.

Keller has now made nine relief appearances since the Royals moved him from the starting rotation — he led the club in starts and innings pitched at that time — to the bullpen.

With many of the organization’s top young pitching prospects having progressed to the majors or the upper levels of the minors, other pitchers once viewed as starters — such as Keller and Carlos Hernández — have moved to relief roles as the Royals evaluate their options for building an elite-level bullpen to complement and support their rotation.

“I’m getting used to it,” Keller said during a recent homestand. “I like the guys down there. We keep it fun, keep it loose. Then whenever it’s time for business, it’s all business from there. I’m getting accustomed to it. More so see how the other guys that have been doing it — how they go about it.”

Ironically, a trip to Fenway Park last summer provided a bit of a “light bulb moment” for Keller in regard to seeing and understanding the directional issues he’d been struggling with in his pitching delivery.

He made the adjustment late last season that helped him find more consistency in the season’s final weeks.

Keller had been a rotation mainstay from the end of 2018 until August of this season. He made two Opening Day starts for the Royals, and he led or shared the team lead in wins in three of the previous four seasons.

Now, the final weeks of this season have become about adjusting to the bullpen.

Keller said the biggest change, thus far, has been getting his body ready to pitch on a daily basis, not knowing if he’ll be called into the game or not.

So far, in his nine relief appearances, Keller has delivered mixed results. Overall, he has posted a 6.92 ERA as a reliever with opponents batting .316 against him and a WHIP of 2.00.

In his first four relief appearances (3 2/3 innings), Keller’s ERA reached 14.73, with opponents batting .500 and recording a .542 on-base percentage.

In the five most recent outings (9 1/3 innings), Keller’s ERA dropped to 3.86 with opponents batting just .200. He registered more strikeouts (eight) than he allowed hits (seven).

“I just go in there and pitch my game and try to get the guys out,” Keller said. “I feel like I’ve gotten a little bit more strikeouts, but it’s hard to say when it’s only two innings or three innings versus six innings. I haven’t really noticed it a whole lot. I just try to go in there and compete and attack.”

In his brief stint in the bullpen, he has averaged a strikeout per inning. As a starter, he struck out 83 batters in 122 1/3 innings.

Keller has been throwing the split-finger fastball, a pitch he’s experimented with in the past, more now out of the bullpen — though he noted that sometimes the pitch registers as a sinker in Trackman and MLB Statcast data.

His hope — the Royals’ hope, too — is that this pitch will help increase his swing-and-miss rate.

“It’s been good,” Keller said. “I’m excited about throwing it. I have confidence in it. I’m just trying to build on it.”

Built for the bullpen?

This season’s final games will help Keller continue to get his feet wet and enable the Royals to get some gauge how he might fit their longer-term plans. To date, he’s been used in multi-inning outings (five of at least two innings), as opposed to shorter bursts.

Royals manager Mike Matheny said the approach has simply been to get him out there as often as possible and see how things unfold.

Strikeouts can be significantly more important and necessary for a reliever because he’ll potentially enter the game with men on — not to mention a slim margin for error.

As a starter, Keller induced a high volume of ground balls. The problem he ran into was when he executed his pitch and forced the hitter to put it in play on the ground but it made its way through the infield for base hits.

“He is who he is,” Matheny said. “The stuff is what it is. You can manipulate it a little bit. His changeup is different right now and that’s getting some swing and miss. For the most part, you can’t all of a sudden turn him into a guy where the ball doesn’t sink and cut.

“I think when it comes to player like Brad — or all our guys — it’s not just pitching to contact. It’s pitching to soft contact. We don’t want hard contact. If you can keep it off the barrel, you’ve got a whole lot more room for your infielders to work to get to it.”

As a starter, Keller’s most frustrating outings often came when he’d suffer the pitcher’s equivalent of death by a thousand paper cuts, watching multiple grounders slip through the seams of the KC defense.

A lower percentage of plate appearances against Keller ended in extra-base hits than against other Royals pitchers, such as Zack Greinke, Jonathan Heasley, Kris Bubic and Hernández.

Keller also posted a lower extra-base hit percentage than the league average. His hard-hit percentage has been similar to that of Brady Singer (40.6% compared to 41% according to Baseball-Reference.com).

“It has been bizarre to watch how many balls get through when he’s pitching,” Matheny said. “It’s a shame. Not making excuses, but he’s pitching better than what his numbers would tell you right now.”

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.





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