TDG’s Triple Play: Pittsburgh Pirates
Your senior dynasty analysts enter the second season of the Triple Play! The regular feature breaks down an arm, a bat, and a prospect within each organization for your reading pleasure!
Mitch Keller, Age: 23, SP
Analysis by: Jonathan Merkel
A Future Pirates Great?
Mitch Keller has spent the past three years living near the top of Top 100 prospect lists. Now the baseball world is getting to see what the long-hyped prospect can do at the highest level. And why not? The 2019 International League Pitcher of the Year had little left to prove on the farm, the Pirates have been a trainwreck since the All Star Break, and their “underrated” Opening Day rotation has been obliterated. So while Mitch Keller has quickly experienced some impressive highs and lows in the bigs, he is easily the most exciting starter in the Pirates’ organization.
Keller has long been lauded for his tremendous heater, sturdy mound presence, and command. The 23-year-old has a fastball mix which typically sits around 95 but can be ramped up to 97-98 when he needs it to pop. Keller mixes his 60-grade heat with two solid–but still developing–breaking offerings: a curve and slider. He is still working to master both pitches. Last, and least, comes Keller’s lagging, “Show Me” changeup which he has used only 4.5% of the time.
Keller’s stuff, average-to-above command, and “prototype pitcher build” make him an easily projectable middle of the rotation arm. Best of all, in the highest levels of the minors, Keller looked like he could become even more. As I mentioned, Keller was named the 2019 International League Pitcher of the Year. He earned this honor by throwing 103.2 innings while striking out over 10 batters per nine. He also did a fine job limiting both of a pitcher’s worst nightmares: walks and home runs. This mix of success earned him an ERA of 3.56 and a WHIP of 1.24.
And while the young Keller has already been victimized by inflated home run numbers in his 31.1 innings of professional play, everything else looks dandy for this dynasty asset. He’s transitioned with over 11 strikeouts and only 3.45 walks allowed per 9 innings pitched. That’s good. Sure, his current 8.62 ERA looks ghastly. But compare it to his 4.11 SIERA. Yes, the stat needs time to stabilize, but so does Keller. 31.1 innings isn’t enough time to crown him an ace, nor is it enough to write him off. One can be happy with the fundamentals of what he has shown so far.
If anything, one should be extremely confident that good things lie ahead for Mitch. Just peek at his .479 BABIP, 53.6% LOB% or 1.44 HR/9 and tell me he doesn’t deserve a little bit of luck, horrendous rookie results be damned.
We’ll get to see a lot more of Keller next season. With Jameson Taillon sadly on the Injured List again and Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove, plus everyone else the Pirates have touched struggling, a path to regular innings looks clear. If Keller can capitalize on his 2018 experiences, he should be primed for more innings and better results in 2020 and beyond.
My biggest worries with Keller do lie with the organization he plays for. Ray Searage saw his star rise for maximizing talents of guys like AJ Burnett, Joe Blanton, and J.A. Happ, but Pittsburgh now clearly lags behind other organizations in helping arms take steps beyond mediocrity.
Gerrit Cole’s brilliance in Houston is perhaps an unfair example, but he does exemplify a player Pittsburgh failed to capitalize on. Meanwhile imports Joe Musgrove and Chris Archer have failed to make any significant progress. If anything, they’ve gotten worse. An arm like Keller will have to be carefully nurtured to become anything more than rotation depth in real life and in dynasty. But the kid does have the tools, the talent, and the opportunity to become great.
Can the Pirates help him the rest of the way? If they can, he could become a viable number one or two starter and a valuable piece of your dynasty rotation.
Josh Bell, Age: 27, 1B
Analysis by: Keaton O. DeRocher
For Whom The Bell Tolls
Or is it for who the bell tolls? Whom could say? Anyway, whomever’s name is Toby, take a letter opener and stab it into your skull. Back to the matter at hand, Josh bell is a guy that I have been high on going back to his days in the minors and his rise to #20 on the MLB.com’s Top 100. Bell’s hit tool was his carrying piece throughout his time in the minors, accumulating an impressive .303/.373/.454 slash line in 4 full seasons in the minors. His homers only ever topped out at 14, and even that was at Triple-A in the PCL so many were skeptical about his ability to have impact power at the major league level. Then in his first full season in the Majors in 2017, Bell went off for 26 dingers and started to put those fears to bed.
A Crack In The Liberty Josh Bell
Bell followed up his break out season with a bit of a downer in the power department, only topping out at 12 homers across 148 games. Although the power was down, there was still plenty in Bell’s profile to be optimistic about. So much so that Bell became the centerpiece of a Dumb Bet between fellow writer Patrick Magnus and myself, when I had pegged Bell as a name we were too low on coming into the season during our pre-season first base pod of Dynasty’s Child. What stood out to me was his quality of contact profile. From 2017 to 2018, Bell increased just about everything. His launch angle increased a tick from 8.6 degrees to 9.2 degrees, his exit velocity increased an impressive 3 miles an hour to 90, he increased his barrel rate from league average to a full percent above, and his hard-hit rate increased from league average to well above at 39%. All of these numbers suggested he was more unlucky rather than not as much of a power threat as we may have thought.
The Bell Is Dinging Loud and Clear
The bet Patrick and I made pre-season was an over/under on Bell’s homers which we set at 20. I took the over, and obviously and thanks to the happy fun ball this year, Bell hit that mark well before the all-star break. Bell’s hitting ability and the natural loft on his swing are truly tailor-made for the juiced ball. If we thought the quality of contact improvements from 2017 to 2018 was impressive the improvements he’s made this season are equally so. Bell is in the top 3% of the league in exit velocity at 92.7, and he again increased his launch angle to a stellar 12 degrees. Those marks made his barrel rate skyrocket to over double the league average at 13.2% and likewise with his hard-hit rate to 47%.
I’m not sure how this header applies to future value but it made more sense to me than Buy or Bell. Jingle Bells is good right? Again, anyway, Juiced Ball Bells is obviously an asset and should be a top 10 dynasty first baseman, probably pushing top 5 (we had him ranked 13th last year). If for whatever reason the juiced ball goes away, Bell still has the talent and profile to rake at the position and should be a player to target going forward.
Kevin Kramer, Age: 25, OF
Analysis by: Bob Osgood
An Infield About Nothing:
Kevin Kramer was drafted as a Shortstop out of UCLA in 2015 by the Pittsburgh Pirates but was moved fairly quickly over to second base as a primary position. Kramer was a second-round pick, but was the Pirates’ third draft pick of that year, being drafted behind SS Kevin Newman and 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes. With a Newman at Shortstop, and a Kramer at Second Base, one could only hope for the Pirates to draft a Costanza, and Andy Benes’s son to assemble an all-Seinfeld infield.
In 2015 and 2016, hitting .282 over his first 671 minor league at-bats between three levels of Single-A, Kramer had a total of only four home runs. But with 78 walks and 99 strikeouts, a keen eye at the plate was something to hold on to and keep moving up the system.
Kramer has become an entirely different hitter since the start of the 2017 season, which has seemed to be attributed to a swing change. With 6 home runs over 202 at-bats in 2017, 15 in 527 at-bats in 2018, and 10 in 393 at-bats in 2019, the power showed for the first time as a professional, in return for a rise in the strikeout rate. After sitting between 12-14 K% at the varying A-levels, Kramer struck out at a rate of 21%, 24%, and 26% the past three seasons at Double-A, Triple-A and Triple-A respectively.
Fortunately, in 2017 and 2018, Kramer’s productivity did not suffer as a result of the swing change, outside of the strikeouts. A 2017 slash line of .297/.380/.500 with an ISO of .203 and a wRC+ of 141 skyrocketed across the board at Double-A. Kramer looked just as good upon moving to Triple-A in 2018, with a .311/.365/.492 line, that included a .181 ISO and 141 wRC+. Two years of production even earned Kramer a call-up to the Bigs in September of last year, although 20 strikeouts in 40 plate appearances was not an ideal start.
Dynasty Value: Does he have the Kavorka?
Turning 26 prior to next season, the clock is ticking for Kevin Kramer. His 2019 season regressed from last year in several areas, which is not a good sign considering it was his second year at Triple-A. Part of that can be attributed to an unsustainable .392 BABIP last season, but outside of an improved walk-rate, all stats declined this season. (Stats through 8/31, and courtesy of FanGraphs):
A September call-up is a possibility this month, and it will be interesting to see how he approaches major league pitching the second time around. No player should be judged by 40 times at the plate, but with the Pirates out of the playoffs, it would be good to see him get a similar run down the stretch. Additionally, with Indianapolis (Triple-A) deploying Kramer in the outfield 30 times this year, along with 50 games at 2B and 15 at 3B, it’s possible that he is being seen as a versatile type who could fill-in where needed, rather than the answer at second base. There was a lot of hype at times during the ’17 and ’18 seasons regarding Kevin Kramer, but barring an impressive call up over the next few weeks, I think that Kramer is trending towards a “Sell” heading into the 2020 season.
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