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The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

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April 21, 2024

Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Mitch Keller’s journey to the Major League

Mitch Keller
Keller’s improvement moved him from a projected 15th-round pick to a 2nd-round pick in under a year. He decided instead of continuing his athletic and academic career at UNC, he would go straight into the MLB draft.

Every kid who plays a sport at a young age dreams of playing professionally, but few ultimately live out that fantasy. To be a professional athlete, players have to be the best of the best. To put it in perspective, about 10.5 percent of NCAA senior male baseball players will get drafted by a Major League Baseball team. Yet, even with the odds against him, that wasn’t the case for Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star pitcher Mitch Keller. 

Keller grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, an unlikely place to find a star pitcher. Most professional baseball players come from California, Florida or Texas due to the warmer weather, which is better for baseball. Iowa’s most popular sport is football, with baseball and basketball close behind; Keller played all three sports growing up. 

Despite his love for basketball and golf, Keller decided to focus on baseball in his junior year due to his talent and potential. Although he wasn’t NBA or PGA Tour-worthy, basketball and golf helped him improve as an athlete. For that reason, he believes it’s unfortunate that high school players devote all their time to one sport, he said.

“I just go to shoot hoops and run around,” Keller said. “But I think it just helps your body awareness and how to move your body and it translates to pitching.”

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Keller quickly became the number 10 ranked pitcher in Iowa with a 91-mile-per-hour pitch at 17 years old. His performance interested many Division 1 colleges, but he ultimately committed to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

After working hard during the offseason, Keller found himself pitching 95 miles an hour as a senior in high school, becoming the best pitcher in his state. Keller’s improvement moved him from a projected 15th-round pick to a 2nd-round pick in under a year. He decided instead of continuing his athletic and academic career at UNC, he would go straight into the MLB draft.

“You just can’t pass that up,” Keller said. “If I didn’t have that year where my velocity jumped from 91 to 95, I probably would’ve gone to college.”

The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Keller in the second round. Jon Keller, Keller’s older brother, was drafted the year before out of the University of Tampa, and with a full year in the league under his belt, he pushed his brother to believe that he could succeed in the majors. 

On June 13, 2014, Mitch Keller signed with the Pirates and was off to Florida for training. It wasn’t until he continued to rise higher in the minors that he realized baseball was a potential full–time career. The minors have four levels before players reach the major leagues: Single-A, High-A, Double-A and Triple-A. Triple-A is considered the highest level in minor league baseball and the last level before the majors. 

“Even when I was in minor league baseball, making the big leagues was always just a ‘maybe’ thing,” Keller said. “When I made it to High-A or Double-A was really when I could see that there was potential to play in the big leagues.”

Whether losing a game, giving up runs or walking a batter, Keller would push himself to perform his best. He struggled with thoughts of never making it to the major league, but because of his excellent performance, he knew he deserved the promotion. Sure enough, after five years in the minors, Keller made his major league debut on May 26, 2019. However, the jump from the minors to majors was a drastic difference.

“When I made it to the big leagues and failed for the first time, it was hard for me…it was very a frustrating time,” Keller said. “You’re questioning yourself. Do I belong? Am I a good player? And it just takes a lot.” 

Moving from the minors to the majors is a drastic jump. In the minors, players mostly pitch against young players starting their careers. When players get pulled up to the majors, they’re suddenly playing against the best players in the game. 

Keller struggled at times and his performance fluctuated, causing him to shift between the minors and majors.  

Despite his lingering self-doubt, Keller chose to persevere and face obstacles head-on. In 2021, Keller encountered a pitching struggle — all his pitching techniques were off, and he wasn’t seeing the usual results.

“I just honestly looked for other jobs,” Keller said. “I felt like I was at an all-time low.”

However, Keller was determined to continue improving, so he began setting small goals for himself to accomplish during games or practice, allowing him to see gradual but steady growth. He would tell his coaches the goals he set for himself so they could hold him accountable as well. Soon enough, he found himself out of his slump and back pitching at his full potential. 

After a rough season in 2021, he was named to the 2023 National League All-Star team. Despite the recognition for his hard work, Keller felt it added stress as he prepared for the next season, he said.  

“Being an All-Star was cool. But it does put a bit more pressure on you to try to live up to those things,” Keller said. “So now next season everyone’s like, ‘Oh, he’s an All-Star last year. We’re expecting him to have the same season.’”

Going into next season, Keller plans to approach it like any other: put in the work to be the best pitcher he can be and do everything he can in the offseason to prepare himself. 

“If it doesn’t work out, then I know I did everything I possibly could. But for that, I don’t try to put the pressure on myself or expectations,” Keller said. “I try not to listen to the outside noise or the expectations because I think that can get in people’s heads.”

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Mia Kanczuker
Mia Kanczuker, Sports Writer
Grade 11 Why did you join the Black and White? I love writing and sports, so being a sports writer gave me a combination of two things I love. What is your favorite song of all time? Feeling Whitney - Post Malone

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    JoelFeb 28, 2024 at 2:31 pm

    My favorite pitcher on the Pirates! Followed hisareer sine he has bee in the majors. Looking forward to him helping the Pirates reach the post season.