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The first proclamation came the day pitchers and catchers reported to Arizona. Royals All-Star catcher Salvador Perez anointed Brad Keller the ace of the pitching staff.
Perez wasn’t the only one to voice that confidence in Keller. Veteran starter Danny Duffy also made similar comments. By the time manager Ned Yost named Keller the opening-day starter, it’d practically been rendered a foregone conclusion.
One year in the organization and 20 starts into his big-league career, Keller had already earned that respect from his teammates.
Of course, actions mean much more than proclamations. For Keller to grow into that bulldog front-man for a pitching staff with many highly-touted arms working their way through the minors, it will mean building a catalog of moments like Friday night.
He tossed a career-high 118 pitches, struck out 10 and pushed his way through 6 2/3 innings despite fighting his command for most of the night.
“I felt good (into the seventh),” Keller said. “I don’t think it bothered me much. My goal was to go out and pump strikes and prove to them I could go out there and pitch after 105 (pitches).”
More importantly, he did it when the Royals desperately needed to stop a 10-game losing streak.
“We needed to win a game,” Yost said of staying with his starter. “We needed to win a game! I was trying to get every out I could out of Keller.”
Yost went on to point to the fact that Keller, a 6-foot-5 230-pound right-hander, is big enough and strong enough to handle the pitch count. He also cited the fact that Keller is the team’s “number one starter.”
Again, actions mean as much if not more than the words. With a seven-run lead and sitting on the precipice of ending the painful losing skid, Yost trusted and leaned on the 23-year-old to get his team through.
“Even though we had a six or seven-run lead, I didn’t want ‘here we go’ in our mind if we could’ve helped it,” Yost said. “… We’d lost 10 in a row and I wasn’t farting around.”
While Keller’s “stuff” will make him a formidable force for any lineup he faces, his mentality and competitiveness on the mound will be the things that elevate him and make him a leader on a pitching staff.
This season marked the ninth in the majors for Royals catcher Martin Maldonado. He’s caught a wide array of pitchers in four organizations. This is his first working with Keller, and he’s been impressed that Keller approaches each at-bat of every outing with the same aggressive mindset to attack whoever dares step foot in the batter’s box.
“He’s a guy that goes out there and competes. Every pitch that he throws is with meaning. He’s got that mentality of go get ‘em. That’s a guy you can see in his face when he’s about to throw a pitch that he’s locked in to execute a pitch.”
Late in Friday’s outing, Maldonado wasn’t trying to nurse Keller to the finish line. He didn’t have to coax or cajole another batter or two out of him.
Instead, Maldonado’s focus was just on making sure Keller understood in late innings that he didn’t have to do too much. Keller’s stuff was still plenty good to get outs as long as he just didn’t need to try to overdo it.
Keller has compiled an 11-7 record with a 2.98 ERA, 4.4 WAR (as calculated in Baseball-Reference.com), 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings and a 1.27 WHIP in his career so far.
It’s not statistics, but the trust he garners from those around him and the presence he has on the mound that has already started to set him apart.
“I know they’re all different, but his mentality is pretty much like (Zack) Greinke, (Yovan) Gallardo, Gerrit Cole, those guys — they don’t care who is in the box,” Maldonado said. “They’re just going to go out there and make pitches.”