Sam Mellinger

The process inside The Process: How the Royals missed on Brad Keller ... and then hit

The scouting story that pushed life into the Royals’ rebuild began on a cool day in Tennessee almost exactly two years ago.

One day that spring, 1,002 people sat watching a Class AA baseball game in Jackson. Among them was a former big-leaguer who was scouting for the Royals, and the impression left with him would change the team for which he worked.

“I just saw him the one time,” Mitch Webster said. “Once was enough.”

Brad Keller started for the Jackson Generals that day. He threw 71 pitches over five innings, allowing four hits and one walk while striking out five. He had no way of knowing it was the outing that would change his professional career.

Keller is now the star of what could be one of the great old-school scouting stories in the modern history of an organization that prides itself on old-school scouting stories perhaps more than any other in baseball.

Two years ago Keller had a 4.68 ERA in 26 minor-league starts — good for 86th in the Southern League.

Last year he finished with a 3.08 ERA across 140 1/3 big league innings. Here is the complete list of rookies to match those numbers since the turn of the century: Roy Oswalt, Brandon Webb, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jose Fernandez, Jacob deGrom and Michael Fulmer.

Keller is now the Royals’ best pitcher — 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds with a mid-90s fastball, hard sinker and developing slider and changeup.

“This is something I never thought could happen,” Keller said. “It’s just crazy how this was presented, how it all came about. Just a surreal experience.”

The Royals got him through the Rule 5 draft, baseball’s version of a thrift store, and the story of how he went from discarded by the Diamondbacks to starting opening day for the Royals is the intersection of luck, diligent scouting and a franchise’s specific timeline and priorities.

Retracing the steps tells the story of who the Royals are when they’re at their best.

“From the first time we met him, everyone felt good about him,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “Instantly. People were pulling for him, wanting him to do well.”

So, a clarification. That afternoon in Tennessee is where this scouting story starts. But the process of bringing Keller to the Royals actually began some five years earlier. Back then, Keller was an effective high school pitcher in suburban Atlanta, but more of a popular teammate than elite professional prospect.

Scott Gaffney was an assistant coach at Flowery Branch High and remembers Keller throwing a no-hitter in a playoff game. Flowery Branch actually lost 2-1 that day on a throwing error by the shortstop. Keller’s high school career was done, and he would’ve been forgiven for feeling some bitterness at the loss.

Instead, he was the loudest cheerleader on the bench, the most positive kid on the team.

“That’s going to stick with me as long as I’m coaching or in the game,” Gaffney said.

Gaffney doubles as an associate scout — a bird dog — for the Royals. He had called Sean Gibbs, the Royals’ area scout, selling him on Keller’s potential.

Gibbs’ first look came when Keller was a junior. He was a big kid with a fast arm, and Gibbs liked the ease with which he threw. But his fastball was in the mid-80s. Baseball drafts are stuffed with pitchers in the mid-90s.

“If you think he takes one more step, you give me a call,” Gibbs told Gaffney.

The call came a year or so later. Keller’s frame had filled out some and his fastball was holding in the upper 80s. In scouting parlance, Gibbs was still dreaming on Keller.

“We’re projecting a full grade to two grades,” he said. “But he’s the kind of kid you want to dream on.”

Velocity was a decent bet to come for Keller. He was not a so-called circuit kid. He was on nobody’s top 100 rankings at any age, and wasn’t maxing out for the radar guns. He was instead learning to pitch — setting hitters up, developing an attack plan for leadoff hitters, gaining a feel for the moment’s right pitch.

In the leadup to the 2013 draft, Keller worked out for the Royals twice: once at a regional tryout in Georgia, and once at Kauffman Stadium, with his parents in-house. The club liked his pitching more in Georgia but got to know him better in Kansas City.

Draft spending limits had just been implemented the year before, and the Royals were one of the first clubs to take advantage. They selected Stephen F. Austin infielder Hunter Dozier eighth overall, knowing he would sign for less than the typical amount for that spot, then picked pitcher Sean Manaea from Indiana State at No. 34.

The plan worked. Both signed. Dozier was the club’s opening day third baseman this year, and Manaea keyed the Ben Zobrist trade in 2015. But the strategy also sacrificed flexibility later in that draft. Gibbs thought Keller would be a smart pick as early as the sixth round, but the Royals needed him to slip past the 10th to accommodate baseball’s spending rules.

The Diamondbacks took him in the eighth round. At the time, it seemed that all the scouting work and time spent getting to know Keller was wasted.

Then Webster saw him in Tennessee.

Hundreds of players are eligible for the Rule 5 draft every year. They are baseball’s unwanted — four or five years in the minors depending on age, and not yet on their team’s 40-man roster.

Clubs pay just $100,000 — less than 20 percent of the big-league minimum salary — to draft a dreamer, but fewer than two dozen are selected most years. The Royals’ process begins with the entire list.

“Our process is we always go off our scouting reports first,” Royals director of pro scouting Gene Watson said. “Always.”

Mike Hazen had recently been hired as Arizona’s general manager. He has since called the decision made about Keller a mistake, but he also said they didn’t believe they could add him to the roster while trying to compete in the big leagues. They hoped his unimpressive raw statistics would keep him off other teams’ draft lists.

Webster’s report was unusual in that Keller had an above-average grade at Class AA. Often, grades that strong are reserved for players in rookie ball. Joakim Soria, to date the Royals’ most successful Rule 5 pick (unless Keller surpasses him), had pitched 11 2/3 innings in Class A ball.

Watson and his staff cross referenced Webster’s report from Class AA with Gibbs’ report from high school. The next step was was for Gibbs to call around. At this point, the Royals are sold on ability. Now it’s about personality.

“You want to know the makeup,” Watson said. “Are they going to vibrate? We had the report on him, but sometimes those things are volatile. Guys can change.”

The feedback was convincing.

“If anything, he was even better,” Gibbs said.

OK. Now they were convinced on talent and convinced on character. Next, they needed to make sure Keller would fit. The catch on Rule 5 selections is they must spend the entire season on the club’s big-league roster. That typically takes winning teams out of the mix, but even losing teams must have buy-in from their manager and coaches in making such a selection.

Cal Eldred was entering his first season as the Royals’ pitching coach. Watson sent him video of some players the club was considering, including Keller.

“That’s the first time I’d ever done that,” Watson said.

This worked on two levels. Most obviously, it was soliciting the opinion of the organization’s top judge of pitching talent. Eldred would be the one working closest with Keller, so his opinion mattered.

But also it meant dialogue — a chance for the scouts to hear directly from Eldred about what he saw and what’s important to him. That can only help the scouts better understand what to look for in the future.

“And Cal was huge on him,” Watson said. “This was a can’t-miss match.”

So, an update: Convinced on talent. Convinced on character. Convinced on fit. The last step was simply making sure they could get him. The Royals owned the 18th pick and knew that wouldn’t be enough.

One of Watson’s roles is gathering intel on other clubs’ intentions. Sometimes that means asking directly, and sometimes it’s more like a backroom game of 21 questions — Is he a pitcher? Latin American player? College kid?

Based on that, the Royals bought the Reds’ pick at No. 5 overall for $150,000. They spent the same on the Mets’ No. 6 pick. Webster actually had outfielder Victor Reyes rated No. 1 overall (Reyes went first overall to the Detroit Tigers and is now back in the minors), but the Royals’ philosophy in the Rule 5 draft has historically been to take pitchers. And in this draft, Moore put a premium on finding potential starters.

They took Keller with the fifth pick, and Burch Smith with the sixth. Keller had the higher ceiling, Smith the higher floor. The Royals had their guy, reunited after missing him five years earlier.

“You can say we got lucky,” Webster said. “I’d say we were lucky he wasn’t put on the (Diamondbacks’) roster for sure, lucky he was there, and lucky he was even better than I thought he was.”

There is some truth in that. The Royals took Chris Ellis and Sam McWilliams in the most recent Rule 5 draft. Two more pitchers, one with more potential and the other with more certainty. McWilliams was cut in spring training and Ellis didn’t last a week on the big-league roster. This is still more art than science.

But with Keller, the process worked. It was a mixture of luck, yes, but also so much more. This is the Royals at their best. This is what they believe themselves to be, and what they need do more often to make the broader and more important process work.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.