Rancho Cucamonga, California —— I had the pleasure of watching San Diego Padres left-handed pitcher Jerry Keel throw the best game of his season—maybe the best game of his career—on Thursday night for the Lake Elsinore Storm on the road against Rancho Cucamonga. He twirled a complete game two-hitter on 111 pitches (75 strikes), striking out nine and walking three in the Storm’s road win. The lone blemish against him was when Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Quincy Latimore barreled up a ball and sent it to the trees beyond left-center field—something Latimore has been doing to virtually every pitcher he faces lately, anyways. Take that away and Keel allowed one measly bloop single across the rest of his nine-inning complete game, a massively impressive effort against a very good lineup, especially considering how up-and-down his season has been.
But you don’t think I’m writing a four-day late game recap about one single Jerry Keel start, do you? Let’s step back for a broader look after that complete game — specifically, let’s synthesize how outings like this may help give light to Jerry Keel’s future. I have seen the Cal State Northridge product several times before in both 2016 and 2017, and in an earlier report about the big lefty, I hypothesized pretty strongly that he ought to be headed for the bullpen soon. That still may be true, of course, but maybe that analysis was… premature?
Not to be swayed by one (very good) complete game alone, but I’m far more sold on his ability to execute all four of pitches, his exceptional feel for changing speeds, and his natural understanding of how early to go to his off-speed stuff. No, Keel doesn’t typically break 90 mph with his fastball, but he need not do so if he’s also going to flash a curve, and changeup, and a slider all distinct enough from each other to get him through an opposing lineup multiple times. In a world of throwers running velocity up to the mid-90s, what if Jerry Keel—at his best—is a hell of a pitcher?
Let’s go back to Latimore for a second. A ten-year veteran of pro ball (Keel is in his third season), Latimore name-dropped the lefty on Friday night when I asked about the outfielder’s reactions to hitting so far in the California League.
“We also faced Keel in Lake Elsinore [last week], and he is a really good pitcher, man,” Latimore said, shaking his head with the look of a guy coming by his admiration honestly. “He has a good idea of what he wants to do. He keeps that fastball on the outer half, he has that big curve, and then he throws that slider down and in to righties. And then you have to watch for the changeup. That’s a lot. I think my success came from being able to lay off the pitches he wanted me to swing at, and to swing at the pitch I wanted. It was tough, but I wanted to wait for my pitch over the plate to do damage with, and I was able to do it.”
Latimore did that damage off Keel, but Latimore has done damage against literally everyone since he’s been in the Cal League, slashing .486/.609/1.057/1.666 with five doubles and five home runs in his first 11 games there, so let’s throw him out. That Keel was able to hold him to a solo home run is, arguably, a feat. That Keel was able to work around Latimore and completely equalize major Dodgers prospects in that Rancho lineup is far more of a feat. And now it has me thinking about whether Keel’s career is soon going to find itself on an upswing.
Jerry Keel has thrown 115.0 innings this year. At most, he’ll get two more starts in 2017 (perhaps just one), which means he’ll hover somewhere below the 125-inning mark over 22 or 23 games (18 or 19 starts) split between Low-A Fort Wayne, High-A Lake Elsinore, and Double-A San Antonio. That’d be just a few more innings than last year—Keel tossed 114.2 frames over 32 games (16 starts) in 2016—but he spent almost a full month of this season on the disabled list from late June to late July, and that robbed him of five or six starts and perhaps 25-40 more innings of work. Further, Keel was likely targeted to spend more time up in San Antonio than he did, but a roster crunch and some six-man rotation shuffling eventually pushed him back to Lake Elsinore to repeat and conquer the level he’d been introduced to last year. And now, likely with some innings left to burn this year and at a pivotal point in his greater career, an option suddenly looms for Jerry Keel.
Hello, Arizona Fall League?
Arizona Fall League rosters haven’t been announced yet and I have little by way of insider information on that decision-making process, but Jerry Keel is at the perfect point in his career (floating between High-A and Double-A) and has the perfect 2017 innings hole (it’d be feasible for him to start five or six more games this fall due to his DL stint) that it won’t surprise me if he winds up in Phoenix at some point during the AFL season. He’s the epitome of a fringe prospect who flirts with an encouraging ceiling on nights like Thursday in Rancho, and then he’ll turn around and float up a 69 mph curveball or two followed by an 88 mph belt-high fastball that’ll make you wonder if he will ever get all he should out of that imposing 6’6″, 240-lb. frame.
Not quite as good as the complete game he just twirled, and certainly not as bad as some of his more forgettable outings throughout the season, Jerry Keel sits somewhere in the middle — a shrewd hurler eager to change speeds from nearly the very first pitch of the game who, frankly, is fighting for his life every fifth day to remain a starter among the San Diego Padres impressive group of pitching prospects far more talented than Jerry Keel.
A year ago, I watched St. Louis Cardinals left-handed pitching prospect Austin Gomber tear up the Arizona Fall League. A physically imposing, naturally strong lefty just like Jerry Keel, Austin Gomber flashed a fastball in the upper 80s and relied on changing speeds and sheer guile to fool hitters with his best off-speed pitch: a changeup. Replace Gomber’s changeup with Keel’s curveball, and the pair aren’t too far apart. This doesn’t mean Keel will run through AFL hitters in quite the way Gomber did a year ago, of course, but it bears a second look: maybe the time is perfect for the San Diego Padres to figure out exactly what they have in left-hander Jerry Keel by showcasing him in the AFL this October.
Maybe the big lefty has the perfect, nuanced arsenal that’ll answer the bell against the game’s best young hitters and solidify him as a future starting pitcher. Maybe Keel’s AFL stint will prove he’s uniquely more qualified to face lefties in relief, as I’d hypothesized earlier. Maybe he’ll enter 2018 in a far more high-profile station in the organization than where he finds himself today.
AFL decisions have yet to be publicly announced, so this is only a gut feeling on my end… but maybe Jerry Keel is at the perfect point in his career to take the big test at Major League Baseball‘s prospect graduate school in six weeks.