Althoff High graduate Austin Keen is picking up a little work on the side.
The sophomore right-handed reliever at the University of Kentucky will employ a new-look sidearm delivery to confound hitters next spring. Combined with his traditional over-the-top motion, Keen hopes he’s in for a banner sophomore season.
“I’ve been going sidearm, over the top, sidearm, over the top — that kind of deal,” said Keen, the News-Democrat’s Small-School Player of the Year as a senior in 2015 when he was 8-2 with a 1.68 ERA with a school-record 104 strikeouts 58 1/3 innings. “I was straight over the top in high school. But (Kentucky coaches) were like, ‘Hey, with a ball that runs, you should try this and see if it works for you.’
“I’ve been practicing it down here and I ended up throwing it in some of our intrasquad (games). It’s been working out really well for me. It was just kind of trial and error, and they were like, ‘Man, you should stick with it.’”
The 6-foot, 185-pound Keen redshirted in 2016. As a freshman last spring, he was 0-0 with a 3.68 ERA in 11 games and 7 1/3 innings. He walked nine and struck out one.
Keen expects much more of himself. He’s gained 30-plus pounds since high school and has a starter’s arsenal with a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup. His velocity, which was in the mid-to-upper-80s, now consistently sits in the low-90s.
“I’m hoping everything kicks into gear,” said Keen, a teammate of pitcher Zach Haake, a Mater Dei graduate. “I hope it’s a breakout year. I think I’ll be more of a setup-inning kind of guy — like a seventh- or eighth-inning kind of person — rather than just being a specialist.
“I’m hoping I get a lot more innings, but you never know. We’ve got a pretty good team this year. It’s always a battle to see who’s coming in and who’s not. We’ve got some guys hurt right now. When they come back, my workload might be a little bit less. But hopefully, I get 20, 30, 40 innings in this year.”
It’s crazy how much of a difference there is between high school and college In high school, you don’t need a changeup. In college, it can be a deal-breaker if you have one or if you don’t. It’s that important.
Kentucky pitcher and Althoff graduate Austin Keen
Keen said he’s enjoyed the “trickery” involved with pitching from different arm slots.
“I’ll probably do mostly drop-down, but I’ll come over the top with a fastball, changeup or slider. That’s been working out well for me,” he said. “This has been my favorite year so far. It’s been a lot of fun playing some trickery and throwing off the hitter’s timing.
“I definitely miss starting. But now with the dropping down thing, you can’t really start doing that. So sticking with relieving is probably going to be the best thing for me. ... I don’t throw 96, 97 (mph). It’s all about movement with me. Being able to throw four pitches for strikes has really helped me out.”
Keen said it’s impossible to survive in the Southeastern Conference with one or two pitches. That’s why a changeup will be important to his future, particularly because it’s a pitch that negates the advantages enjoyed by left-handed hitters.
“It’s crazy how much of a difference there is between high school and college,” Keen said. “In high school, you don’t need a changeup. In college, it can be a deal-breaker if you have one or if you don’t. It’s that important. Hitters in the SEC can hit just about anything. If you just have a fastball and slider, it’s tough to pitch with just two pitches. You need a good third pitch, so that changeup can be lethal.”
Growing up, Keen often was told he didn’t have the necessary size to pitch at the Division I level. His dad, Brian, who played baseball at Western Michigan, was always there to restore his son’s confidence and offer a few tips along the way.
“I have a backbone like my father,” said Austin Keen, a native of Smithton. “My father was always telling me, ‘You can do this.’ When I thought I couldn’t do it, my dad stood behind me and he was like, ‘Man, you’re going to do this.’ I never wanted to disappoint my dad. So with him always telling me, ‘You’re going to do this,’ I always shot for the stars. I just kept working. I ended up here and this is the only place I would want to be.”
Austin Keen – whose mother is Gina Costello, the daughter of former U.S. representative Jerry Costello – hopes he is a source of motivation for pitchers with similar statures.
“I was 153 pounds my senior year,” Austin Keen said. “Obviously, I took a redshirt year and put a little more weight on me. For those little guys, this gives them some hope. This is what I always wanted when I was a young guy. I was always told I was too small. (Now) I’m playing with the best (players) in the country. We work our butts off and stuff, but don’t give up hope. Little guys can make it, too.”
Besides his father, Austin Keen recalls former Althoff coach Brett Isaacs as one of his biggest motivators.
“I miss Coach I. Coach I is awesome,” Austin Keen said. “He’s probably been one of the most inspirational people in my life. He always talked about being small and being undersized and still going to play D-I. I still talk to him frequently.”
Austin Keen said not throwing hard has at least one advantage: It places priority on learning how to pitch to both sides of the plate.
“If you’re not hitting your spots, there’s no place for you here,” he said. “f you can only throw 90, 91, you’ve got to be able to pitch. That’s what I learned going from high school to college. There’s way more to baseball than you think. Nobody knows everything. That’s why you’ve got to keep coming to the field every day wanting to learn.”
David Wilhelm: @DavidMWilhelm