Angels' Keynan Middleton still trying to regain form two years after elbow surgery

Los Angeles Angels relief pitcher Keynan Middleton (99) throws against the San Francisco Giants during the eighth inning of a baseball game in San Francisco, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The Angels had high hopes for Keynan Middleton entering the season, believing the reliever — two years removed from Tommy John surgery — would reclaim the late-inning role he seized in 2018, when he emerged as the team’s closer in early April.

Middleton, 26, did not fulfill those expectations, going 0-1 with a 5.25 ERA in 13 appearances and getting demoted to the team’s alternate training site in Long Beach on Aug. 31. But by no means have the Angels given up on the hard-throwing right-hander.

"There's no doubt that this guy can be a high-leverage reliever,” pitching coach Mickey Callaway said on a video call before Tuesday night’s game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas.

“It was more just the inconsistencies of what we were seeing from Key when we were here, so we wanted him to go down there, be able to relax and just throw the ball over the plate consistently. Because when he does that, he has great success.”

Middleton, a third-round pick out of Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore., in 2013, reached the big leagues in 2017 and had a 2.04 ERA with six saves in 16 games in 2018 before tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.

He returned from surgery in time to pitch in 11 games in 2019, allowing one earned run in 7 2/3 innings for a 1.17 ERA, but he walked more batters (seven) than he struck out (six).

Middleton regained his presurgery velocity this season, his fastball averaging 97.1 mph according to Fangraphs, and his pitch mix — he also throws a slider that averages 87.4 mph and a changeup that averages 88.3 mph — did not change much. He struck out 11 and walked six in 12 innings.

But opponents hit .255 with two homers and.294 when they put the ball in play against Middleton, a significant increase over 2019, when opponents hit .154 with no homers and a .200 BABIP.

“We've seen in the past, and we've seen it at times this year, he looked electric,” Callaway said. “So we really want him just to hone in on the zone and make sure that those outings when he gets a little out of control, and out of whack, with his release point don't happen as often.”