A ninth round draft pick out of Cal-State Northridge in 2015, Keel was drafted more for what he has a chance to become as opposed to his more traditional numbers as a Matador. He finished his collegiate career with a losing record at 18-24 record in four years but improved enough as a senior where he threw 91.1 innings with 80 strikeouts against only 22 walks to get the attention of scouts.
When he is on the six-foot-six Keel is capable of making batters feel like it is impossible to square up the baseball where because of his height the ball has a trajectory of appearing that it is coming straight down.
Last season, and at the beginning of this year, the Padres had him coming out of the bullpen where he experienced success at short-season Tri-Cities, 28:8 strikeout to base-on-balls ratio in 33 innings.
As a reliever for the TinCaps Keel had a 1.23 ERA in 29 innings with 25 strikeouts against 11 walks. In mid-June, because of some promotions to High-A Lake Elsinore, he was moved into the rotation where after a two initial rough outings, has settled in as one of the more consistent pitchers on the staff.
In past five starts he has a 2-3 record with a 2.00 ERA and 21 strikeouts against four walks in 27 innings.
We caught up with Jerry before one of his recent starts to talk about his transition from the bullpen to the rotation.
After you got drafted from Cal-State Northridge, what was your biggest adjustment to the pros?
Jerry Keel: The initial adjustment was just going into the bullpen, which was the first time I had ever done that in my career – and that is in college, high school or anywhere.
That was the biggest change. Everything else – the travel, living with host families – I had done that type of stuff before. I was in the Cape Cod League, which was kind of a similar experience.
It is a different mentality pitching as a reliever compared to being a starter. Also did you go to the bullpen because that is where San Diego sees you in the long run or because you threw so many innings in college?
Jerry Keel: It may have been a little bit of both. They may have wanted to see how I adjusted to it and this year that is where I began also. Whatever they had planned for me I wanted to show that I could do it.
Last summer was an adjustment period and this year I think I got better at it in understanding the mentality. I just started attacking hitters more than sequencing hitters which is what you do as a starter.
You had some really good numbers coming out of the bullpen and then you struggled for a little bit before hitting your stride as a starter. What was the change?
Jerry Keel: I started going after the hitters more in the first few pitches and staying away from deep counts. Get on the field; get off of the field as quickly as possible.
The most difficult thing about pitching seems to be trying to balance between going after hitters and hitting your spots on the corners. How do you balance between the two?
Jerry Keel: It’s just knowing yourself and what you have to do that day. If there are runners on second and third you have to attack the hitter right now. If you start with a clean inning, you can do some different stuff.
How would you describe yourself as a pitcher? You are six-foot-six, 240 pounds correct?
Jerry Keel: Yes, that correct on the height and weight. Fastball wise I mainly throw a two-seam sinker, down in the zone to get ground balls. I will come in with a four-seamer on the hands to righties. But the majority of the time it’s two-seamers and sinkers.
I will throw a slider and change-up – but usually the change-up just too righties.
You have to help us. What is the difference between a two-seamer and a sinker?
Jerry Keel: The two-seamer is more horizontal and the sinker will give you more depth vertically.
So what you want is the batter facing you to feel like he is hitting the top of the baseball all day.
Jerry Keel: Correct, I want them to feel that they can’t square it up.
Do you have any real preferences on starting or relieving?
Jerry Keel: Last year I would have said that I prefer to be a starter but now that I have done both I’m comfortable with either one.
Some guys talk that being a starter it is easier to work on things during the season as opposed to being a reliever where you have to be ready everyday. Do you find that to be true?
Jerry Keel: I agree. At the beginning of the year I threw two bullpens as a reliever up until May. The time you get to work on things when you are coming out of the pen is on flat ground playing catch.
There was one outing when I came out of the bullpen I threw only fastballs and didn’t throw any off-speed because the batters were hitting everything into the ground. Why use anything else if they can’t do anything with it?
I went a week without throwing a slider. As a starter you get a chance to throw more innings with more pitches and you have to use more of your repertoire. Then you get to go to the pen the next few days and work on even more stuff.
When you are a reliever what you got, is what you got.
What is it like working with a pitching coach in the pros as compared to your amateur career?
Jerry Keel: They all have their different techniques. You take what they teach and try to apply it to yourself. Burt [Hooten, the TinCaps’ pitching coach] is pretty laid back. He will watch you and then throw out some information he believes will help you and if you want to buy it, you can. He always points out that it is our career.
He has helped me a lot in bullpens because it is a lot more one-on-one instruction as a starter. He still works with us as relievers, but it is more just speaking with you about things he saw in the game as opposed to actual bullpens.
That is kind of hard for us that are former high school athletes to understand that the coaches at this level tend to be more advisers than dictators.
Jerry Keel: It’s nice because they are not trying to make everyone a robot because not everyone is the same. We are not trying to all throw it the same. The knowledge that Burt bring from all of his years in baseball is really helpful.
You are kind of old; you must remember seeing Burt pitch? [laughs}.
Yes, I can remember it – but it was when I was a kid, so you have to give me a bit of a break. [laughs]
What is the biggest part of your game that you want to improve upon?
Jerry Keel: One of my biggest strengths that I’ve been told that I have is my mental side. I want to work on keeping my composure and I want to get to the point where you can’t tell if I am having a really good outing or a bad one.
I always want to work on getting stronger and in better shape. Since my freshman year of college I have lost fifty pounds and gotten stronger.
How did you drop that much weight?
Jerry Keel: It was a lot of running and just maintaining. Getting on a good conditioning program and that type of stuff. I’m at a good place, but I can always do more.