Kansas City Royals hope Brad Keller's last outing, changeup will 'unlock' his future

Lynn Worthy
The Kansas City Star (TNS)
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Brad Keller checks the runner at first base during the third inning May 19 against the Milwaukee Brewers at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The film "Rookie of the Year" objectively doesn't rate near the top of the long cinematic lineage of baseball movies.

However, in one scene during a largely confusing mound visit, veteran pitcher Chet Steadman talks in circles to the elementary school-aged phenom pitcher Henry Rowengartner about fear, and pitching from "the have to."

Sure, it's an understatement to consider almost everything in the movie a bit of a stretch. But a pitcher working from a position of uncertainty and necessity isn't completely far-fetched.

In Kansas City Royals right-hander Brad Keller's recent start May 30 against the Minnesota Twins, he found himself working from the "have to," and it might end up being a significant step forward in his ongoing development as a front-of-the-rotation starter.

Keller got in a position where he had to abandon his four-seam fastball. The movement on that pitch that day simply wouldn't allow him the type of command necessary. It showed early with his three first-inning walks.

Keller had to do something different. So he started using his sinker more. The other pitch that he went to a lot more often than usual was his changeup.

He threw his changeup 16 times in five innings. Last season in nine starts, he threw a grand total of 17 changeups.

"If I just sat there and threw sliders the whole time, it probably wasn't going to work out well," Keller said. "It kind of forced me to throw that changeup. Honestly, I learned a lot about it today. I felt like I could throw it in any count, threw it for a strike, throw it just off, throw it for an action pitch."

Of the 16 changeups, Keller got opponents to swing six times. Twice he got a swing-and-miss. Three were fouled off. Only once did it get put in play — an infield single to shortstop by Alex Kirilloff came off the bat at an underwhelming 63.6 mph.

"I threw a lot of them today, threw them for strikes," Keller said. "I got swing-and-misses on them. I got some rollovers on them. I got a strikeout on it, which is pretty cool."

Throughout the outing, Keller and Royals pitching coach Cal Eldred had an ongoing conversation about that pitch, how he needed to use it, how it could tunnel with his sinker and slider.

On one hand, it was Keller working through what he had to in order to get through that particular outing. On the other hand, it might be a building block towards Keller becoming the pitcher the Royals believe he can be — the ace and workhorse of a staff.

"It could unlock a guy's future," Royals manager Mike Matheny said. "It's not necessarily just the effectiveness of that pitch. You just add a little bit of complexity to the (hitter's) approach to you, knowing that's in your repertoire and seeing it and realizing it's a legitimate pitch."

On Sunday, the circumstances dictated that Keller utilize the changeup as a weapon. But the coaching staff has been talking with both Keller and pitcher Brady Singer about trying to come up with a "sweet spot" number, the amount of changeups they need to throw to make it something hitters have to be conscious of each time they step in the box to face them.

Eldred and members of the coaching staff certainly use games like Sunday to reinforce the message about the importance of having more "tools" to go to as needed in a given situation.

Matheny acknowledged the understandable reluctance on the part of a pitcher to go to a third or fourth offering when faced with the urgency of a pivotal situation, having another option he's comfortable with as opposed to the one he has less than full confidence throwing.

That's another reason outings like Sunday are uniquely important.

"That last start was a huge step in the right direction for Brad," Matheny said. "Seeing some of the bad swings, then paying attention to — the thing we asked him to do — the next pitch and the next two pitches. Whether it's consciously or subconsciously, that pitch will slow a hitter down to where that next one with velocity is going to have a different reaction."