It’s hard to say that the Yankees would be justified buying or selling over the next 72 hours. Their mediocre play has placed them into an unenviable position of postseason purgatory — sitting in last place outside of the current playoff picture but close enough to the final Wild Card that punting on the rest of the season would risk the financial fiasco of failing to put butts in seats for the final two months, not to mention setting fire to one of the remaining prime years of Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole. Nonetheless, our trade target series marches on, today landing on Pirates All-Star starting pitcher Mitch Keller.
2023 Stats: 22 GS, 133.2 IP, 3.97 ERA (112 ERA+), 3.82 FIP, 9.8 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 1.14 HR/9, 1.212 WHIP, 2.1 fWAR
Contract Status: Earning $2,437,500 million in the first of three years of arbitration eligibility. Scheduled to become a free agent following 2025 season.
If you’re wondering why we’re profiling a starting pitcher when it’s the offense that has dragged them down to this point, at the end of the day the game is about runs, scoring them and preventing them. If the Yankees cannot reinforce their roster with players that boost run production, the alternative is to bolster the run prevention department.
Keller blends the ability to limit hard contact with effective command of the strike zone, sitting in the 85th percentile in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate while placing in the top-third league-wide in strikeout and walk rates. Interestingly, he finds himself in the bottom-fifth of the league in chase and whiff rates and I feel this is down to misuse of the pitches in his repertoire.
Keller’s situation reminds me a lot of Gerrit Cole’s tenure with the Pirates. Both pitchers possess elite stuff but were and are not getting the most out of their arsenals thanks to the organizational pitching philosophy. Cole was asked by former Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Searage to lean heavily on his sinker. The minute he was traded to the Astros and Brent Strom had him ditch the sinker for his high-spinning four-seamer, he became the best starting pitcher in baseball.
I believe a similar jump in form could accompany a departure from Pittsburgh for Keller. His four-seamer is tied for the sixteenth-fastest among qualified starting pitchers and sits in the 83rd percentile in spin rate. Despite this, he only throws the pitch a quarter of the time, mixing in a sinker with a 22 percent usage rate despite it performing almost 40 points worse than the four-seamer in slugging and wOBA.
With guys like Cole, Carlos Rodón, and Nestor Cortes, the Yankees are taking a page right out of Strom’s book. But that’s not the only way that Keller aligns with the Bombers’ pitching philosophy. He was one of many pitchers to add a sweeper during the whirly revolution of 2022, and already he sits atop the league with the most horizontal movement vs. average of any sweeper in baseball. This demonstrates an ability to translate coaching concepts into on-field results — something which should mesh perfectly with pitching coach Matt Blake’s approach to instruction.
Thus, I think an easy fix could be a simplification of what is currently a six-pitch arsenal. Bump up four-seam and sweeper usage, ditch the sinker, and scale back reliance on a cutter (22 percent usage rate) that has produced an ugly .485 slugging against.
Joel Sherman of the New York Post speculated that, should the Yankees buy, they would prioritize players under contract or with team control beyond this season — if this year’s roster has holes, you can bet future rosters will be even more pockmarked. As for Keller’s availability, both Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman have reported that the Pirates are willing to listen to offers for their Opening Day starter.
Being willing to listen to offers and actively shopping a player are two entirely different things — it goes without saying that the Pirates are under no pressure to let Keller go for less than a significant offer. Earning just over $2.4 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility, Keller is both affordable and comes with two extra years of team control relative to a rental. Those extra years are worth their weight in gold on the prospect market.
While the Yankees and Pirates have shown a willingness to negotiate over recent seasons (Jameson Taillon and Clay Holmes for two), it’s fair to wonder whether New York possesses the prospect capital to pry him from Pittsburgh, and if so whether that’s a package they’d be willing to part with. He may not be the flashiest or most pressing addition, but he would help beyond this season, something the Yankees are increasingly having to consider with each dropped game.