Royals starting pitcher Brad Keller accepted the mantle of staff ace at the start of the season. He’s thrown an average of nearly 100 pitches per start, in part, because he feels it’s his job to limit the bullpen’s usage.
Now as Keller approaches the finish line in his first full season as a major-league starter, the Royals will keep a close eye on his usage.
Keller (7-13, 4.10 ERA) will make his 27th start of the season Tuesday night when the Royals take on the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. He’ll try to snap out of a recent run in which he’s lost his past four starts despite a few solid performances, including taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his most recent start.
The 24-year-old has pitched 158 innings and sailed past his workload totals from last season, his first in the majors, when he started the season in the bullpen and moved into the rotation. As a rookie in 2018, Keller pitched 140 1/3 innings in 20 starts and 21 relief appearances.
With six weeks left in his first full season as a starter, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound right-hander who looks like a future workhorse with small tree trunks for legs feels the long season wearing on him.
“It’s that time, not just because the innings, but even in the minor leagues where the whole season is kinda stacking up on you and you’re starting to feel a little bit down, you can tell,” Keller said. “You’re sleeping a lot more, trying to get as much recovery as you can.
“Overall, I feel pretty good. I’m just trying to finish off the last month and a half off pretty strong, but I’m definitely getting a lot more in the training room, a lot more in the weight room, and just trying to stay on top of things.”
Despite two off-days last week, the Royals chose to use Jorge Lopez as a spot starter on Monday night when Keller could’ve pitched on regular rest.
Royals manager Ned Yost said the organization hasn’t discussed a hard innings cap for Keller this season, but they’ll give him more rest in the final weeks of the season.
“We have discussed making sure we give him extra days,” Yost said. “He’s getting an extra day this time. We’ll give him an extra day next time. We’re looking to see how he’s progressing, how he’s bouncing back.”
If needed, the Royals could turn to Lopez as an option. Left-hander Danny Duffy (hamstring) should return from the injured list soon, and that could help in creating extra rest for Keller.
“We’re definitely monitoring his innings load,” Yost said. “If it gets to a point where we feel like he’d benefit from missing a start, we might do that too just to give him a break. We’re just kinda going start-to-start and seeing how he’s feeling, how he’s doing.”
During spring training, Keller stated a somewhat lofty goal of pitching 200 innings this season. Last season, 13 pitchers in the majors reached the 200-inning plateau.
Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer led the majors with 220 2/3 innings. The former University of Missouri standout didn’t pitch 200 innings in a season until his fifth full season as a starter.
Keller will almost assuredly fall short of 200 innings this season, but he’ll likely reach 30 starts and could finish the season as the pitching staff’s leader in innings. Jakob Junis entered the week second on the team with 150 2/3 innings pitched.
Keller has already decided he’ll likely take more time off during the offseason to rest and recover before he starts training. He admitted that last year he probably started earlier than he needed because he got a little bored when he went home and got antsy to prepare for his first full season in the rotation.
He now vows to take more time off in hopes of conserving saving energy for late in the season to assure he’s not running low on gas.
“You can’t really imitate experience, you’ve just really got to go through it,” Keller said. “You always prepare as much as you can, but you don’t really know until you go through it. Going through it now is just a building block for years to come. I just know how I can prepare, how I can make my offseason better to make the season finish strong and, ultimately, pitch in October.”