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Finally back home, Flowery Branch grad Brad Keller able to reflect on sterling MLB rookie campaign
23-year-old had arguably one of the best rookie seasons ever for a Kansas City Royal
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Brad Keller, a pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, stands for a photo at Hog Mountain Sports Complex on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. Keller is a graduate of Flowery Branch High and is spending time at home following his first year with the Royals. - photo by Austin Steele

The only work Brad Keller has put in for the last six weeks has all been on a golf course.

Shooting in the 70s is typically a rare feat for the Major League pitcher and Flowery Branch native, but Keller’s range from low 80s to upper 90s has been good enough to just go out and cut loose with close friends while he enjoys some R & R back home.

Well earned for a guy who just wrapped up his first stint in the big leagues.

“It’s just a relaxing time, getting away from the game and just taking a mental break,” said the 23-year-old Keller, who capped off the season with the Kansas City Royals on Sept. 30.

“(The grind of a major league pitcher) is insane. It’s tough, but at the same time it’s everything you’ve dreamed of.”

While admitting it’s a little embarrassing to watch his buddies showboat their lower handicaps over him, Keller has never been much of a stat guy anyway.

This much was true even when some of Keller’s rookie numbers surfaced, which quietly put the Rule-5 acquisition among some of the top players in baseball in 2018. Keller’s feel-good rookie season — from a statistical standpoint — just happened to be one of the best-ever for a Royal.

From humble beginnings as a long shot to make the majors, to a reliever in the Royals bullpen and now being a sure starter in the Majors — even in some fantasy baseball leagues  — the name on the back of Keller’s jersey keeps growing by the day. But since hitting the ground running on Opening Day, it wasn’t until two weeks after Keller returned to Flowery Branch when he had the chance to look back on his journey.

What a year it’s been.

The right-hander closed out a stellar 2018 with top-five nods in several statistical categories. Among rookie starters, he was fourth in innings pitched (140.1), fourth in wins with (9) and third for earned run average (3.08). Only 17 AL rookies since 1970 finished with a lower ERA than Keller, including two former Kansas City players (Per Royals Review).

Although boasting a four-seam fastball that occasionally registers 97 mph, it was Keller’s sinker that wound up producing the second-highest groundout percentage in the big leagues for 2018. 

Keller, named to Baseball America’s All-Rookie Team last month, took his numbers a step further in the world of sabermetrics. For Wins Above Replacement (a sabermetric that summarizes a player’s total contribution to a team in one statistic), the young hurler was third behind Joey Wendle (+4.3) and — oh yeah — AL Rookie of the Year Shohei Ohtani, per Baseball Reference.

Surprised as he was to learn of those eye-popping numbers, still, Keller’s true motivation for the game remains.

“I definitely sit back and reflect on how awesome the experience was … But I never really cared for those,” Keller said. I’d much rather the team win … That’s how my mentality has always been.”  

Wins were a little hard to come by for Kansas City (58-104), which finished dead last in the AL Central but went on a small tear over the final stretch of the regular season. The Royals were 20-14 in their final 34 games, and Keller had a hand in that late-season success. For the month of September, Keller went 2-1 with a steady ERA of 2.33. 

Keller garnered praise from teammates and even Royals manager Ned Yost after a 6-3 win over the Chicago White Sox on Sept. 11, when he dealt seven strong frames with six strikeouts while only letting up a single run. Keller induced 13 ground balls and retired 13 of his final 14 batters to pick up his eighth win of the season that night. 

Time and time again, the Royals’ breakout star on the mound — who slid underneath the media radar for AL Rookie of the Year talks — gave the organization a pleasant glimpse into the future.

“I asked (bench coach) Dale (Sveum) during the game, ‘what other rookies are making like, an impact?’ He was like, ‘oh, Ohtani — from the Angels.’ And I’m like, OK well, who else?” Yost told reporters of Keller during the game’s postgame press conference Sept. 11. “We had a harder time trying to figure out who his competition would be. ...I’m very proud and pleased with the year (Brad) has put together. And not only am I pleased with the year he’s put together, I’m happy about the future with this kid.”

A shot at October ball was lost well before the All-Star break, but Keller has long counted his blessings since Kansas City acquired him in a trade following the Rule-5 draft last December. It could not have been a better situation for Keller, who said his initial start in the bullpen, getting his feet wet with an inning here or there was vital in his transition to the rotation. 

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Brad Keller, a pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, stands for a photo at Hog Mountain Sports Complex on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. Keller is a graduate of Flowery Branch High and is spending time at home following his first year with the Royals. - photo by Austin Steele

His fondest memory in the bullpen happened against the World Series champion Boston Red Sox in a May 2 loss. Keller entered the game with a runner on second base, he recalled, and got out of the mini jam by striking out Hanley Ramirez before getting J.D. Martinez (the first major leaguer to win two Silver Slugger awards in a season) to ground out for the last out of the inning. Jogging out onto the historic Fenway Park was another indication — other than his first appearance at Kauffman Stadium — that Keller made it to the show.

“You dream of it as a kid,” added Keller. “It is one of the most famous ballparks. Getting the chance to come out of the bullpen and going in against a really good team, the World Series champs, that was one of the coolest moments.”

Keller compiled a 2.01 ERA before his promotion to the starting rotation in late May. From there, he went 9-6 over 20 starts with a 3.28 ERA and 96 strikeouts to finish as the No. 2 guy on the rotation.

Having fellow starter Ian Kennedy as a mentor was another blessing for Keller, who could not fathom the importance of studying film until teaming up with Kennedy in the locker room. Analyzing the tendencies of opposing hitters was beneficial, said Keller.

“It was incredible. From Day 1 of Spring Training, the Royals just took me under their wing, and it felt like I’ve always been with them since I got drafted,” Keller said. “Just a class-act organization all around.”

Keller mentioned an annual Christmas trip to Costa Rica with his family as the next item on the docket this offseason. Then it’s back to the grind. 

Keller, who has been lifting weights in the gym to build strength and stamina, plans to start throwing around mid-December. His goal — along with the entire Royals starting rotation — is to aim for the 200-inning mark in 2019.

Winning is very-much on the list of to-dos for the Royals clubhouse, too.

“Now we’re looking at winning,” he said. “We’re a young team going through a rebuild. … We gotta just keep that mentality of, ‘we can do this’ and ‘we can win at this level.’ … We got a really good group of young guys. I think all of us together play really well.”

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