What a day for Mitch Keller, man. First, KellARRRRRRR was named the Pirates’ Opening Day starter for the second year in a row, which – yay, whatever – but the bigger news came in the form of eight figures headed his way. Keller signed a five-year, $77 million extension, which (if you know much about the Pirates’ frugality) basically is their version of giving Shohei Ohtani 10 years and $700,000,000.

Last season, Bryan Reynolds signed an eight-year, $106.7 million deal. He is the only Pittsburgh player in history who has been given more than Keller’s total number, but Keller’s $15.4 million average annual value is well ahead of any other player in the more than 120-year tenure of the club. In terms of all-in on a player, this is as all-in as this team gets right now.

Does Keller deserve this kind of deal? Is Keller a true bona fide ace, worthy of locking up at $15 million per year in his age 28-32 seasons, or is he like when I waited until Valentine’s Day morning to buy flowers for my wife and the dozen roses that were $20 three days earlier were $100?

Keller’s $77 million deal over five puts him right in the middle of the four years, $80,000,000 for Eduardo Rodriguez this offseason, and three years, $75,000,000 Sonny Gray received. The Pirates got an extra year out of their deal, but also probably got the third-best pitcher of that group from the last three years. In the past three seasons, Sonny Gray accumulated 10.1 WAR, E-Rod totaled 7.6, and Keller checks in at 6.5.

BUT! What Keller does offer that E-Rod (30 years old) and Gray (34 years old) can not is the fact that he won’t turn 28 until several weeks into the season. Keller also has been improving consistently since 2020, no matter if you want to evaluate him from 10,000 feet overhead, or you are deep under the hood with his portfolio.

The Pirates could have just looked at ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts from the last three years. That would have justified a nice little contract.

2021 69 1.79 8.2
2022 104 1.40 7.8
2023 105 1.25 9.7

This doesn’t even consider his short 2019 debut when he had a horrific 7.13 ERA and 1.83 WHIP. This is all surface level, but Keller has been improving every year since.

At a deeper level, Keller has made some significant changes (particularly between ’22 and ’23) that have aided his development. Following the pitcher trend last season, Keller dropped his use of the four-seam fastball from 33% to just 26%. He developed a new cutter that he used 24% of the time against batters and that pitch plus his sweeper (16% usage) both had whiff rates over 24% last year.

That led to a first-pitch strike percentage that was seven percentage points higher in 2023 than in 2022 (63.8% versus 56.8%). More first strikes lead to more advantageous counts, which leads to fewer walks and men on base, which leads to his ratios improving across the board. The Pirates are counting on Keller to maintain or perhaps improve on those gains for the next five years as he is asked to anchor the rotation while the young pitching prospects fill in around him.

Keller has been going around pick 172 right now in NFBC drafts since January. Our projections put him at a strong 4.11 ERA with just under a strikeout per inning for 2024 which I am absolutely willing to take before pick 170, even with the risk to the wins category. .

The Pirates now have an ascending pitcher locked up at below-market value for what has historically been a pitcher’s prime years. He can’t make up for guys like Martín Pérez, Marco Gonzales, and Bailey Falter who make up the rest of the Pirates’ pitiful rotation this year, but at least once every five days Keller and the Young Bucs are going to be rocking at PNC Park.