Sunday Notes: Front Side Fixed, Brad Keller’s Slider Became Killer in KC

Brad Keller had a boffo season for the Kansas City Royals, and his slider was a big reason why. Buoyed largely by its improvement, the 25-year-old right-hander logged a 2.47 ERA and a 3.43 FIP over nine starts covering 54-and-two-thirds innings. Five times, Keller worked five or more scoreless frames, a complete-game shutout in mid-September serving as his shining-star effort.

Helped by pitching coach Cal Eldred, he jumpstarted his career by developing more depth during his pandemic-forced downtime.

“We made some adjustments during the shutdown,” Keller told me following the completion of the season. “Between spring training and spring training 2.0 we made some mechanical adjustments that allowed my arm to become more athletic, if that makes sense. That’s kind of a weird way to put it, but whenever I would throw my slider in the past, I’d almost block my arm out. We were like, ‘OK, we don’t do that on a fastball, we don’t do that on anything else, so let’s do that same thing on the slider.” Basically, I needed to start throwing my slider just like I throw my fastball.”

The adjustment took time to bear fruit. Initially, the pitch wasn’t breaking at all. As Keller put it, “the very first one almost took the catcher’s head off,” as it was devoid of downward movement. Diligence, accompanied by a Rapsodo and an Edgertronic, eventually did the trick. Once mundane, his slider morphed into a monster.

“With the help of analytics, it became like my fastball for a longer time toward the plate,” explained Keller. “The spin went up. It became sharper, and as a result I started getting some silly swings-and-misses on it.”

Watching one of his starts on MLB.TV this summer, I thought Keller had traded in his slider for a curveball. It turns out I wasn’t the only one.

“A lot of people were saying that,” Keller said. “It does have that straight down action to it, but I hold it like a slider and throw it like a slider. When I go to throw it, I think of staying on top of it almost like I’m cutting the ball in half. I think that’s why I get it more curveball-ish as opposed to slider movement with it.”

The reason his old slider wasn’t up to snuff was surprisingly straightforward. His front side had been too high, and in essence was getting in the way of a clean, consistent delivery.

“This might sound crazy as well, but I couldn’t even see the plate because my front arm was covering the catcher,” said Keller. “I’d be super high with the front arm, and then I’d lean back and throw really over the top. I was constantly pulling off on everything, yanking my front side. I needed to clean that up and keep my shoulders more square.”

Throwing his slider 38.2% of the time — the fifth highest percentage among MLB starters with at least 50 innings — wasn’t a plan at the start of the season. Keller had always been fastball-dominant, but given the swings-and-misses he was getting, a repertoire readjustment only made sense. By season’s end, Keller had thrown an almost identical number of sliders and four-seamers, while his two-seam usage dropped to a career-low 20.9%.

There were a few bumps in the road. One came in Keller’s penultimate outing, when he surrendered five runs in as many innings against the Brewers. Perception was at play. What Keller was seeing from the mound wasn’t what batters were seeing in the box.

“In my mind I was throwing a good one, but they weren’t even taking the bat off their shoulders,” Keller recalled. “We looked at some video before my next bullpen, and what we decided was that I’d kind of gotten away from that loose arm action. As a result the consistency wasn’t there, and [the hitters] recognized it.”

Five days later, the results were back in his favor. Keller finished his season with a six-inning scoreless effort in which he allowed four hits, walked none, and fanned five. Of the 86 pitches he threw on that day, 40 were sliders.

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Charlie Morton offered a thoughtful perspective when asked earlier this week about pitching in the postseason versus pitching in the regular season. His answer was expansive, with the following standing out to me as the highlight.

“To say that we’re the same people in different environments, across baseball, would would be false,” said Morton. “It’s not true. It’s not possible to be the same person that you are in all environments. And that’s very human. We adjust to our environment; we adjust to what’s going on around us. That’s just inherent.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Jorge Orta went 25 for 50 against Dennis Eckersley.

Magglio Ordonez went 24 for 50 against Scott Baker.

Orlando Cepeda went 23 for 53 against Turk Farrell.

Jose Offerman went 22 for 53 against John Burkett.

Ben Oglivie went 21 for 50 against Doc Medich.

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The White Sox’s decision not to retain Rick Renteria brought to mind words spoken by another Chicago skipper last September. As the Cubs’ 2019 campaign was coming to a close, I broached the subject of managerial shelf life with the soon-to-depart Joe Maddon, who acknowledged that change eventually becomes necessary. He added that college coaches can be an exception. As Maddon put it, “the business never gets old because [they have] a new set of ears every four years.”

Renteria was at the helm on the South Side for precisely that period of time, and while his message hadn’t necessarily become stale, it’s reasonable to argue that a change was in the team’s best interests. Moreover — this with the manager’s chair still to be filled — a new message has already been heard loud and clear. Renteria did the job he was hired to do — he helped oversee a rebuild — and his replacement will be expected not only to win, but to win big. When they report to Camelback Ranch in the spring, every player on the team will be aware of that.

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Caleb Thielbar had spent the last two seasons pitching for an independent league team when Ron Gardenhire was hired to manage the Detroit Tigers in October 2017. Three years earlier they’d been together with the Twins, the southpaw in his second year as a reliable reliever, the personable Gardy in his 13th and final season as Minnesota’s manager.

Thielbar wouldn’t play for Gardenhire again, but the latter did help bring him back to pro ball.

“I basically owe my entire baseball life to him,” Thielbar told me shortly after Gardenhire announced his retirement last month. “Pitching for him was great — he always cared about his players — and when he got that job in Detroit, I called him and asked if there was any way he could get me a shot.”

Thielbar ultimately signed with the Tigers in January 2018, and went on to pitch in 89 games between Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo over the next two seasons. Last winter he rejoined his old team, and the reunion was everything he could have hope for. In 17 appearances out of the Minnesota bullpen, Thielbar logged a 2.25 ERA and a 2.34 FIP over 20 innings.

“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Thielbar. “He’s a great guy. It sucks to see him leave the game, but now he’s going to be able to just enjoy life and spend time with his family. I know he’s going to be happy.”

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A quiz:

Duke Snider has the highest fWAR (63.4) in Dodgers franchise history. Which former Dodger has the highest bWAR?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES

Jay Porter, a catcher/outfielder for five teams in the 1950s, died earlier this month at age 87. Per his SABR BioProject entry, Porter was “praised by scouts as perhaps the greatest prospect they had ever seen.” He would record just 124 big-league hits.

Longtime Minnesota sports scribe Sid Hartman died earlier this week at age 100. Hartman’s remarkable career — and it truly was remarkable — was chronicled by the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Patrick Reuss.

Nelson Cruz has been voted by his peers as the Marvin Miller Man of the Year, an award given to the player they “most respect based on his leadership on the field and in the community.”

Andre Dawson has been honored as the first ever recipient of The Curt Flood Award for his selflessness and longtime devotion to the MLBPA and player’s rights.

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The answer to the quiz is Pee Wee Reese. The longtime Dodgers shortstop had 68.2 bWAR. (Snider had 65.4 bWAR, Reese 61.3 fWAR.)

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This year’s Gold Glove Award finalists were named on Friday, and the most-notable non-inclusion was clearly Kevin Kiermaier. The Tampa Bay Rays centerfielder led all American League players at his position in both Defensive Runs Above Average and Ultimate Zone Rating (each by a wide margin), as well as outfield assists. His ten Defensive Runs Saved were second-most, behind Byron Buxton’s eleven, while his five Statcast Outs Above Average were bested only by Jackie Bradley Jr. and Luis Robert’s respective sevens.

The three finalists are Buxton, Robert, and Ramón Laureano. As you might expect, Kiermaier wasn’t exactly enamored with the snub.

“My first reaction was ‘very surprised,’” Kiermaier told reporters. “Once that emotion left me I was disappointed, I was upset… If it was solely based on the computers and the numbers, I don’t know what numbers that computer was looking at. I believe they got it wrong. That’s my opinion.”

The award is based solely on metrics this year, more specifically the SABR Defensive Index. SDI’s validity aside, the Tampa Bay stalwart is far from alone in his opinion, and for good reason. No disrespect to the finalists, but Kiermaier is the best defensive centerfielder in baseball (and Bradley is quite likely the second-best). Sometimes the numbers get it wrong.

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

The SoftBank Hawks (64-40 in the Pacific) and Yomiuri Giants (63-37 in the Central) have commanding leads in their respective leagues. NPB’s regular season is slated to end on November 7, with the Climax Series and Japan Series to follow.

Kosuke Fukudome has been told by the Hanshin Tigers that he’s not in the team’s plans for next year. The 43-year-old outfielder is in his 22nd professional season — 17 in NPB and five in MLB — and is the oldest player in Japan’s top league. (per @JballallenC)

Hanshin announced that they will form a women’s club team for 2021. The Tigers will be the second NPB club to sponsor a women’s team, following the Seibu Lions (per The Japan Times).

The NC Dinos have clinched the top seed for the Korean Series. The KBO’s regular season ends October 31, with the Korean Series to follow.

Former Minnesota Twins and Oakland A’s prospect Tim Atherton will be returning to the Australian Baseball League’s Brisbane Bandits. The 30-year-old right-hander is 27-10 with a 3.64 ERA in his eight-season ABL career.

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Dave Roberts was asked on Friday about any commonalities that might exist between himself and Mookie Betts, given the military backgrounds in their respective families. His response reflected the admiration he has for the future Hall of Fame outfielder.

“I think we’re both very personable [and] like to serve others,” said the Dodgers manager. “We’re very friendly. Another thing is, we both understand structure, respect, gratitude, and hard work. I think that’s where I got that from. I know Mookie’s parents and I’m certain that’s where he got it from. If I can be compared to him as far as character traits, in any way, that’s certainly a compliment.”

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Some will disagree with this opinion, but I think Jeff Luhnow presented himself well in his recent interview addressing the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. While there are unquestionably nits to pick, Luhnow did own up his ultimate responsibility — his exact words were “I’ll take my punishment because I was the general manager” — and Rob Manfred’s alleged unwillingness to allow Luhnow to take a lie detector test is eyebrow-raising. I’d be interested to know Manfred’s reason for declining the offer.

That said, if Luhnow didn’t know what was happening, he should have. Either way, his suspension was merited. Manfred had little choice, which Luhnow — albeit reluctantly — assuredly understands.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Mark Simon gave us a Fielding Bible Awards preview at Acta Sports.

Baseball America’s JJ Cooper wrote about how Allan Simpson, the publication’s founder, became a pioneer for prospect coverage out of his British Columbia garage back in 1981.

Do players get better when they leave the Seattle Mariners? Shannon Drayer explored that question at My Northwest.com.

At MiLB.com, Jesse Goldberg-Strassler supplied us with a Lansing Lugnuts fan’s guide to the World Series.

Two No. 1 seeds meeting in the World Series is a historical anomaly, and Zach Kram presented the evidence for that at The Ringer.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Fifteen World Series home runs have been hit by pitchers. Bob Gibson (1967 and 1968) and Dave McNally (1969 and 1970) each hit two, while 13 other pitchers have gone deep once.

Tony Sipp has thrown 503.2 innings, allowed 405 hits, and logged 531 strikeouts.
Damaso Marte threw 503.2 innings, allowed 405 hits, and logged 533 strikeouts.

On June 9, 1963, Red Sox right-hander Dick “The Monster” Radatz had a 10-strikeout game as a reliever. Two days later, he came out of the bullpen and had an 11-strikeout game.

The record for most strikeouts in a game by a reliever is held by, depending on your definition, one of two Hall of Famers named Johnson. In 1913, Walter Johnson fanned 15 batters in a relief appearance for the Washington Senators. In 2001, Randy Johnson fanned 16 with the Arizona Diamondbacks, having taken the mound upon the resumption of a postponed game.

Von McDaniel’s first three big-league appearances comprised 17 scoreless innings for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1957. McDaniel celebrated his 18th birthday two months before making his debut, and would throw his last big-league pitch at age 19.

Game 3 of the 1911 World Series between the New York Giants and Philadelphia A’s was played on October 17, and Game 4 was played on October 24. In between it rained.

Jimmie Foxx played in three World Series, with hit totals of 7, 7, and 8. His runs scored totals were 5, 3, and 3. His RBI totals were also 5, 3, and 3.

On today’s date in 1981, Pedro Guerrero and Steve Yeager hit back-to-back home runs in the seventh inning to lift the Los Angeles Dodgers to a 2-1 win over the New York Yankees in World Series Game 5. LA went on to capture the title in six games.

On today’s date in 2005, the Chicago White Sox scored twice in the top of the 14th inning, then held on to beat the Houston Astros 7-5 in World Series Game 3. Geoff Blum’s home run keyed the uprising, and the ChiSox completed a sweep the following evening.

Players born on this date include Bobby Thomson, who in 1951 broke the hearts of Brooklyn Dodgers fans by hitting ‘The Shot heard Round the World.’ Thomson was born in Glasgow, Scotland.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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MikeS
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MikeS

Two No. 1 seeds meeting in the World Series is a historical anomaly

I dunno. It happened every single year for about the first 65 World Series.