After dropping their series against the Baltimore Orioles, the Kansas City Royals traveled down south and began a three-game set against the Texas Rangers on Tuesday. Many expected a potential bounce-back game due to Brad Keller being on the mound, but that ended up being far from the case.
Keller has largely enjoyed a terrific start to the season, and his numbers heading into Tuesday night's game were outstanding. He had a 1.74 ERA in 31 innings of work, and opponents were hitting a measly .071 against his slider. After his start against the Rangers, his ERA now sits at 2.70 and that opposing batting average has crept up to .111. Those are still elite numbers for a starting pitcher, but Keller's six-run (five earned) night was not expected in the slightest.
Bad games happen, though, especially on a team like Kansas City. Poor starts have been commonplace throughout the still-young 2022 season in a rotation littered with young arms. Keller, 26, somehow finds himself being one of the elder statesmen among the starting five. After Tuesday's game, he struck a more optimistic tone in regards to his evening.
"I felt like I just battled the whole time," Keller said. "I still feel like I made some pretty good pitches and backed up a couple of sliders that really cost me. But for the most part, I feel like my stuff was pretty good tonight, which is kind of crazy to say."
On one hand, Keller did display good "stuff" for bits and pieces of his start. He did a good job getting a handful of sliders to miss the plate, and he varied location with his four-seam fastball. On the other hand, he had a few costly misses with that fastball-slider combination. Those offerings were tagged for two home runs and a double, putting him in some trouble.
Fastball command has been an issue for many members of the Royals' staff, and it was a thorn in Keller's side last season. Opponents hit .325 off Keller's four-seamer and .339 against sinkers. Hitters naturally will do better when facing poorly-located fastballs, and pitchers who play to contact — like Keller — won't fare as favorably. His fastball will never be an elite pitch, although a .273 batting average against in 2022 is more respectable than it recently has been.
Keller's slider has historically been very good to him. 2021 saw opponents hit .237 against it but in the two years prior, those averages were .187 and .194. Extension is a recurring issue with Keller, however, as his four worst pitches by extension measured have been his sliders in 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2020 (in that order). 2022's version ranks a bit better, but it's still far from ideal. Keller briefly touched on that as well.
"It's something I've always battled — just getting it in direction, driving down the line and actually getting to the finish point of the delivery," Keller said. "I just think, tonight, my slider was kind of hit or miss on that... I felt like I was in a good rhythm as far as delivery and line, it was just a matter of finishing the pitch."
Contrary to what other "bad outings" the Royals have had in 2022, this one does appear to simply be just that. Keller has been mostly proficient this year and is aware of where he needs to adjust in order to have better success next time out. As the Royals look to turn things around, he will have to be a major element of that equation. The next time he takes the mound, the club's No. 2 starter needs to be more precise — and he knows it.