Yankees pitching prospect Brian Keller is coming off a stellar 2018 campaign that saw him make great strides in his first full-season in the upper levels of the system. The 2016 39th round draft selection out of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee led Double-A Trenton in wins (10), innings pitched (125), and strikeouts (114).
In three seasons since being drafted, Keller has posted a cumulative 22-17 mark with a 3.40 ERA to go along with 322 strikeouts and a 1.14 WHIP in 310 career innings of work. The 24-year old right-hander was kind enough to join Pinstriped Prospects via telephone in late December to recap his breakout season along with some insight on his career to this point and his expectations heading into 2019.
Matt Kardos (MK): Thanks again for taking some time out of the busy offseason for us, Brian. So, let’s start there – what have you been up to since the season ended?
Brian Keller (BK): It has been great, so far. Just trying to relax and get away from the game a little bit, besides watching the playoffs. No throwing, no doing anything baseball related really. Right now, I’m about two months into my weight lifting program. I’m trying to get my body stronger and more resilient in order to be the best athlete that I can be coming into the 2019 season.
MK: When do you anticipate beginning your throwing program?
BK: Right about now, actually. My first throwing day was last week, so I’m just getting started on that. Definitely just early stages right now.
MK: You’re a Milwaukee kid, did you grow up rooting for the Brew Crew?
BK: Yeah, I did. I grew up about 30 minutes from the stadium, so I went to a good amount of games and loved the team.
MK: Was there a particular player from those Brewers teams that you looked up to or kind of wanted to be, ether a pitcher or a player you just really liked?
BK: Yeah, there were a couple of guys. As far as pitchers, Ben Sheets was the star when I was a kid – he was a power pitcher and I always wanted to be like that. On the hitting side it was Richie Sexson and Geoff Jenkins were the two big dogs when I was a kid; those were the guys that I looked up to.
MK: You chose to stay in Milwaukee and went to college there at a smaller school, did you have the draft on your radar at all, or did it come as sort of surprise when it happened?
BK: Yeah it was on my radar. Every couple of years there is a guy, or two, that gets drafted out of Milwaukee. My roommate the previous year had gotten drafted along with a couple of other guys – I guess the school was getting a little bit more attention. I had scouts coming to see me every once in a while, so it was definitely on my radar and I guess a big drive for me was to make it pro.
MK: Because you went to a small school and were a late pick in a deep farm system, have you felt like you’ve had to work a little bit harder and try to prove yourself a little bit more?
BK: Yeah, definitely. When I first got to Milwaukee I was able to contribute right away, and that wasn’t the case at a lot of the bigger schools. Once I got drafted, I don’t want to say that I was a nobody, but I showed up that first day and nobody really knew who I was. I was always introducing myself as the 39th rounder.
MK: Is it surreal to you that not you were a 39th rounder, taken by the most prestigious franchise in sports, to now be coming off a Hell of a 2018 season in your first full-year in the upper-levels? You’re now on a lot of people’s radar.
BK: Yeah, exactly. I did not know for sure if I was going to get drafted, or not. For a couple of those days I didn’t think that it would happen. To be given an opportunity by the New York Yankees is surreal like you said. I’m just honored to be given the opportunity to compete for the Yankees.
MK: You got some time in big league camp last spring, what was that experience like?
BK: That was an amazing experience. When I first got there I felt a little bit out-of-place being around all of those MLB guys. It was my agent who kind of reminded me that I deserved to be there. Like we talked about, I was a late draft pick that started in rookie ball and I have had to work my way up. That was really helpful while I was there.
MK: You spent all of last year up here in Trenton with the Thunder, what was it like making the jump up from the Florida State League up to the more advanced hitters in the Eastern League?
BK: I would have to say based on my experience, the biggest jump is between High-A and Double-A. There are a lot more experienced guys in Double-A and definitely better hitters all around.
Overall it was a good season – I struggled early and was battling myself along with those better hitters. I think that was mainly because I was worrying about my velocity, so my pitches weren’t so competitive early on.
I got over that and told myself that this is what I’ve got, and I am going to use it and compete with it, and that’s what turned it around for me somewhere in May. After that I got rolling and sharpened my pitches. I got to work with the same pitching coach two years in a row, so we knew each other well, and he has helped me so much over those years – that being Tim Norton. I credit my success to him, and I was able to end the year on a pretty good note.
MK: You got to work with Norty (Tim Norton) two years in a row, but you also had Jay Bell as your skipper in both of those years. What is it like playing for such an experienced guy with so much MLB success under his belt?
BK: He has got to be my favorite manager that I have ever had. Just the way that he goes about his business and tells us to get our work done in order to come out and compete every day. He is just one of those guys to look up to – he’s got so much experience and you kind of think of him as s second Dad. He’s always giving advice and I’ve been honored to work with him the last two years. He’s got to be one of the nicest guys that I’ve ever met, too.
MK: You’re working with an arsenal that is fastball, curve, slider, change-up. What pitch do you think has grown the most for you since entering the system?
BK: The first two years in pro-ball, the main focus in those lower levels is to learn how to use your fastball. That was a big thing for me coming from college where the focus was to develop off-speed pitches. I get to pro-ball and they want me to use my fastball more and I’m thinking, well I only throw 90 MPH. But, that was super helpful to me because I got to learn how to use it affectively and that made my other pitches better.
Over the last couple of years, specifically last year, I turned my slider, which was one of my better pitches, into a cutter because I was sort of losing a feel for it. I think that pitch had probably been my biggest improvement. The curve ball and change-up have also gotten better; sharper and more consistent. I think that just came with time and being comfortable with them. Everything kind of got better and I am trying to use everything in any situation and develop everything that I have to be as good as it could possibly be.
MK: You will obviously start this season somewhere in the upper-levels, whether it be back in Trenton or up in Triple-A. With that said, does it feel like getting to the big leagues is within reach and you could potentially be just a phone call away from getting that shot?
BK: I am definitely excited for this season to get started. I think I will at least have a good shot at making it at some point if all goes well and the opportunity arises. I am really looking forward to that. I can probably name six or seven guys that were on my team last year in Trenton that got a call-up, whether it was with the Yankees or another team, but you get that feeling that you are so close and that is exciting.