Not many people are pointing to 2020 and saying “Best. Year. Ever.”
But as it turns out Brad Keller is one of those rare souls.
Despite having Spring Training interrupted and paused, and then getting COVID-19 during the end of Summer Camp and having to quarantine and miss the beginning of the MLB season, the 25 year-old ace of the Kansas City Royals bounced back to have his best season yet, pitching to a 5-3 record with a 2.47 ERA (and a microscopic 0.270 Home ERA!) over 54 innings.
As he begins to get ramped up for the 2021 season from his off-season home outside of Atlanta, Keller took some time to reflect on the 2020 season. Last year was a bit of a weird season – and a weird year – for everyone and for baseball itself:
“It was a challenging year to say the least. We went from fully anticipating a normal season to hearing that Spring Training was postponed and having to deal with the uncertainty of not knowing what was coming next. It kept dragging out longer and then when we finally got word that we could come back, and I returned to Kansas City, and within the first week of being there, I got COVID.”
For Keller, “the hardest part about COVID was being confined to those four walls for fourteen days. Those two weeks felt like years.” He did come down with some symptoms, including a scratchy throat and congestion, and losing his sense of smell and taste: “I ordered a pizza and Caesar salad and thought it was the worst tasteless food I’d ever had. And then it hit me. Oh crap, I don’t have my sense of taste or smell anymore.”
Ballplayers – and especially pitchers – are creatures of routine. In that period of uncertainty, Keller and his fellow pitchers were physically raring to go, because they had been throwing, but he then had to put everything on pause during quarantine:
“I actually taped a sock to my wrist, and threw into a sock, just to keep my arm moving. I literally had nothing else to do.”
Working out, especially for the first week after getting COVID was challenge and was physically draining. But eventually he eased into also working out with a kettle bell and some bands that the Royals had sent him:
“When I started again, I definitely felt like it was hard to catch my breath. But getting more active helped me. The more I worked out, the better I felt.”
What is most remarkable about Keller’s 2020 season is that he came back from having COVID-19 and went on to have a stellar season. He attributes a lot of his success to his pitching and bullpen coach. They put in a lot of work together over Facetime, analyzing and breaking down video, and working on mechanics:
“In a weird way, it was a good thing. Our arms were in shape and ready. This gave us the time to work on other things. That’s the way we approached it.”
Though he grew up idolizing John Smoltz, Keller himself is not a fireballer. But he is proving adept at just getting people out, relying on a sinker that provides a high ground ball rate and mixing his pitches to keep batters off balance and get weak contact. Usually it takes pitchers a long time to get to a place where they can do that efficiently.
For Keller, it has taken a lot of hard work and a lot of willingness to learn and tinker with new pitches and new approaches. For example, Keller’s most dominant pitches, his sinker and a high-spin rate slider, are both pitches he added to his repertoire along the way. The combination of hard work, integrating new learning from coaches along the way, while motivated by the “do or die pressure” to make it work has yielded great results:
“My whole time in the Minors Leagues all you hear is that strikeouts are sexy or strikeouts are what everyone looks for, and I just never seemed to be able to strike anyone out. I was thinking I need another way to get outs and to stay in this game. In low A, my pitcher coach, Doug Bochtler taught me the sinker and I had my best year in the Minors. I realized I could really use that as a weapon. The next year, I added a slider so I had an off-speed pitch. When you get to the upper Minors, you get exposed if you don’t have a breaking ball or off-speed. So I realized I needed to add and manipulate things a bit. Now I’m working on a change-up. But that year, I was exposed in the Rule 5 Draft and came to Kansas City, and it was a do or die year for me. Either, I do well and make the team, or I don’t and I don’t know where that was going to go. I really worked hard on all of those pitches.”
Keller speaks highly of the coaches who helped him along the way. He fondly remembers the simple advice he got before his very first start from now-Royals Third Base Coach, Vance Wilson, to just throw the damned ball over the plate!:
“My first bullpen, I was all over the place, and Vance Wilson just told me to calm down and throw the ball down the middle. Use what I have to my advantage. I get good movement on my pitches, so I want them to swing at it and pound it into the ground. That’s the way I went about it. I try to get outs using as little pitches as I can.”
He also has come to rely on a very close relationship with his older brother, Brandon, who was himself a college football player. Although the Keller brothers went their separate ways with sports in high school, with Brad choosing baseball and Brandon choosing football, Brandon remains a role model and confidante for Brad in terms of how to go about his business, work hard, and be dedicated to his craft: “Not a day goes by that we don’t talk, especially in season. He helps to navigate me through the bad stuff and we bounce ideas of each other. It’s very special.”
Looking forward to 2021, Keller sees a lot to be excited about in Kansas City, and he is eager for fans to be able to return to the stands of Kaufman Stadium to provide the team with a further lift:
“We’ve got crazy arms coming up from the Minors. I’m looking forward to being a part of it. We showed a lot last season and were in the race for a lot of the season; granted it was just 60 games, but that gave us confidence going into the season that we can do this.
We have a perfect mixture of young guys and veterans, like Sal Perez, who came back last year and whose energy and leadership brings life to our team.
Hopefully things go back to normal, we can get fans back in the stands, and we can get that energy back.”
Photo Credit: Brad Keller (with permission)