[Interview]: Brian Keller on the Rise In The Yankees Farm System

One pitcher that you won’t find on a lot of top New York Yankees prospect lists is right-handed pitcher Brian Keller. While he doesn’t appear on those lists, that shouldn’t take away from the good numbers he had in 2017.

In 24 starts with Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa, Keller went 11-8 with a 3.13 ERA in 144 innings. He had 157 strikeouts to 28 walks and threw four complete games (two with Charleston and two with Tampa).

After joining the Tampa Yankees on July 5, the 23-year-old right-hander had a 2.90 ERA over his final ten starts and had 67 strikeouts. Despite that small sample size in the Florida State League, he was still third on the team in K’s for the entire season.

Keller was not a high draft choice as the Yankees selected him in the 39th Round of the 2016 MLB Draft out of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the Horizon League. However, the results he had this season should open up a lot of eyes in the organization. In fact, he was named Pitcher of the Year in the entire organization by our Pinstriped Prospects team.

This week, I had the privilege to talk to Keller about his thoughts on this past season, the draft experience, and much more:

Where were you when you found out the Yankees drafted you in the 39th round back in 2016?

“Well, it was definitely a very exciting time for me. I was actually up north with a buddy of mine and my girlfriend, and we were kinda just hanging out on the lake. I was trying to take my mind off of everything going on that day while those two were checking Twitter. Then, I got the notification on Twitter that I was drafted and my phone was dead at the time. I got inside, charged my phone, and soon after I got a phone call. It was just a crazy experience for me. I wasn’t so sure if I was going to get picked up or not. I was so excited they picked me.”

How much pressure did you feel as a late round selection?

“Probably when I first got to spring training, I might’ve been a little intimidated by the guys that were drafted in higher rounds. I don’t know if there’s any added pressure. I found out quickly that once you get down there, everybody is the same there, Everyone gets an opportunity to show what they got and move up in the organization.”

Did you grow up a Yankees fan and who were some of your favorite pitchers to watch growing up?

“Well, I grew up a Brewers fan. I’m from the Milwaukee area. In my younger years, one of my favorite pitcher was Ben Sheets, who was a power pitcher for the Brewers. Then, more recently, guys like Aroldis Chapman, Jake Arrieta, Noah Syndergaard, guys like that. There’s been a lot of them I’ve watched, Clayton Kershaw, all kinds of pitchers.”

Brian Keller pitching for the Tampa Yankees (Mark LoMoglio)

For those who haven’t seen you throw, how would you describe your pitch arsenal?

“I would say I am going to come at you with four different pitches: fastball, curveball, changeup, and a slider. You never know what you are going to get. It will change batter-to-batter, inning-to-inning, game-to-game of what my plan is and how I am going to attack hitters.”

What do you take away from your 2017 season?

“For one, I was happy to be healthy the whole year. That’s a very important thing. If you are not healthy, you can’t go out and compete and show yourself out there. That was one for me, especially being my first full season. Overall, it was a good year for me and a good starting point for me. I’m going to work off of that this offseason as it’s the most important offseason of my life so far. I’m going to try to do everything I can to get into the best physical shape and condition for spring training when that rolls around to go out and compete and even be better than last year.”

What adjustments, if any, did you have to make as you moved up from Charleston to Tampa?

“I don’t know if really any adjustments had to happen. I just had to stay with what was working at the time, and as I was working on pitches and stuff, I would have to find a balance between developing my pitches and using what was working at the time, which ended up working out pretty well over the course of the year and I think I improved over the year, which is probably the most important part.”

Back on July 28, you had a complete game two-hitter against Palm Beach with nine strikeouts. When you are having a game like that, when do you realize you have the dominant pitches working that day?

“It really started from the beginning. For me, I like to go out there and have a really nice quick first inning, try to get batters out pretty much as fast as I can, whether that be with the fastball or any other pitch, whatever is working just to get guys as out as fast as I can. That way I can settle in and then I can sit back and throw what’s working. Based on what the hitters are doing that day, just continue to attack and attack.”

Charleston RiverDogs starting pitcher Brian Keller works against the Lakewood BlueClaws at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park in Charleston, SC on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (Martin Griff)

One month later, you were a part of a game with Tampa where as a team, you struck out 25 batters in 14 innings. What was it like to be part of that game?

“It was a fun game to be a part of and also to watch once my start was done. Just watching everyone attack the hitter and strikeout after strikeout, it was really cool.”

While with UW-Milwaukee in 2015, you got the chance to face the Brewers in spring training and throw an inning. What was that experience like?

It was very cool for me. At the time, I was watching a lot of Brewers games, so I knew what hitters I was going to be facing. Watching them on TV, I kind of got a feel of what they can do as hitters. Once I got out there, I tried to get over the fact that they were Major League hitters and just tried to get them out and ended up having a successful inning. It was a great experience for me to face such high caliber hitters and I think two of them were All-Stars the previous year.”

How did that experience help prepare you for life in professional baseball?

“It’s good to be able to look back on that, especially having good success with that, just to kind of step back and say, ok, I’ve faced as good or better hitters than this before, so why can’t I do this now?

For the listeners out there, can you give us a fun fact about your time at UW-Milwaukee on the baseball team?

“For starters, we played in a city park, not the nicest neighborhood. For a while, it was probably one of the worst parks in college baseball. But, we played exceptionally well there. One year, we had the longest home winning streak and anybody who came to The Hank (Henry Aaron Field), was going to get it handed to them that year.”

How would you describe your offseason program as you prepare for 2018?

“This offseason, like last and all of the other previous offseasons, my goal is to get in the best physical shape that I can, trying to put on some mass. I want to be able to be bigger, faster, and stronger as an athlete. That way, I can use that in my pitching mechanics to create the most force possible, throw the baseball as hard as I can, and have sharper pitches. That’s what it’s all about, making average pitches into plus pitches in the major leagues.”

Heading into the 2018 season, what are your goals for yourself?

“Getting into the best shape possible. I have specific body weight goals, strength goals in the weight room. But, I basically want to put myself in the best position to be better than I was last year. The ultimate goal, whether it happens this year or a couple years down the road, is to help the Yankees win their 28th championship. That’s the biggest one of them all.

You were a part of a Tampa team this year that did end up making the postseason. While you guys didn’t achieve the ultimate goal of winning the title, what was it like to take part in those postseason games and how do you look back at this year from a team perspective?

That was probably one of the most fun and dominant teams I’ve been on. Just so many talented players on that team who all worked together. All really good friends and it was an awesome experience. We had great coaches and a great mentality. Going into the playoffs, we were definitely hot going in. Unfortunately, it didn’t really work out for us, but over the course of the season, I learned a lot about what it meant to be on a real team. That was really cool.”

You guys went 46-19 in that 2nd half. When you are on that kind of roll as a team, is it I have to follow up what the next man does mentality?

“Especially, when you are winning, you want to give the team the best chance to go out and win another baseball game. So, everyone is just trying to look to do their part in a team effort to win the game. For me as a starter, that’s to go as deep in the ballgame as I can with as few runs allowed as possible. We had a pretty electric offense, which helped out often and we had great success. It was a lot of fun to be around their guys.”

For the people listening/reading this interview, what’s your message to Yankees fans out there?

You saw in the previous season; the Yankees are a real team. Even if you don’t really pay attention to the minor leagues, I can tell you that there are a lot of talented ballplayers out there who are ready to come up and help the squad get to that 28th championship.”

How closely do you guys at Charleston/Tampa follow what the big league club is doing?

We always try to have the game on in the clubhouse. A lot of times we are playing at the same time, so we only catch a couple of innings, maybe the last few innings. If we are on the road, we are getting Twitter updates and what not and checking in on who’s doing well, who’s not, who’s moving around the organization. There are guys who care more than others and like to check in. Overall, we pay attention a good amount.”

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