Overview: Another free agent profile, another Astro. Unlike with Marwin Gonzalez, however, it’s a little easier to nail down Dallas Keuchel’s value and fit for the Braves. A seventh rounder back in 2009 out of the University of Arkansas, Keuchel breezed up the ladder to start sixteen games for the 2012 ‘Stros. Since then, he has been a cornerstone of their rotation with three seasons in the AL that included an ERA under 3.00.
Keuchel put the Junior Circuit on notice in 2014 and then broke out in a big way the following season. He set career highs in nearly every statistical category, including finishing with 5.9 wins above replacement according to Fangraphs’ interpretation. His 2.48 ERA was accompanied by a 2.91 FIP, showing he was no fluke. The voters were paying attention and awarded him a Cy Young for his efforts.
But the workload, which included another 14 innings in the playoffs giving him 246 total, took its toll on the left-hander. His shoulder was never right in 2016 and his numbers declined. Finally, he spoke up to the team doctors about it after back pain also developed and he was shelved for much of the final two months. In 2017, his shoulder and back were fine, but neck issues including a pinched nerve landed him on the DL twice. Once those issues subsided, he helped the Astros cruise to a trip to the playoffs and started five games on their road to a World Series title. He wasn’t sharp in the Fall Classic versus the Dodgers, but did start that crazy Game 5 that went ten innings and was won 13-12 on a Alex Bregman walk-off single.
While his ERA was a run-and-a-half higher in 2016 than it was in 2017, his FIP was much closer (eight points difference). That was still much higher than his Cy Young season during 2015.
His bounce-back campaign in 2018 included his third 200-inning season of his career, though his numbers still didn’t compare with his breakout season, nor the solid year that preceded it. He finished 2018 with his third 3-win season according to fWAR and a 3.74 ERA, plus a 3.69 FIP. The last number is only a moderate improvement over the previous two injury-shortened campaigns.
As always, we’ll look at a possible contract and then go over the cases for and signing Keuchel from a Braves’ perspective.
Predicting a Contract: It’s important to note that when predicting a contract, we’re not so much trying to decide what the player is worth. We’re looking more at what the market has thought in the past and with Keuchel, there’s a pretty recent and possible excellent starting point.
Keuchel is a former Cy Young winner that is three years removed from that award. His follow-up campaigns, while not horrible, haven’t been as good. He’ll turn 31 before the 2019 season begins.
Jake Arrieta is a former Cy Young winner that was two years removed from that award. His follow-ups, while not horrible, weren’t as good. He turned 32 before the 2018 season began.
Arrieta received a convoluted deal which called for $55 million over two years and three additional seasons at $20 million. Technically, the final two years are optional with other incentives based on games started and where he might finish based on award voting. If Arrieta opted-out after 2019, the three other years could be exercised to keep Arrieta in Philly. If Arrieta doesn’t opt out, he gets another $20 million to pitch 2020 and then hits free agency. It’s a ridiculous deal, but what’s promised – without any of the opt-outs and everything else – is $75 million over three seasons.
Now, in full disclosure, there are some differences between Keuchel now and Arrieta then. The former Cub flashed a steady decline after his Cy Young season according to his peripherals. For instance, his FIP, as low as 2.35 in 2015, declined to 3.52 in 2016 and 4.16 in 2017. Further, his innings pitched declined by roughly 30 innings each of his final two seasons in Chicago. By contrast, Keuchel’s FIP has ranged from 3.69 to 3.87 for three consecutive years and he threw over 30 more innings in his final year before free agency than Arrieta did. And we don’t know how much – if at all – Arrieta’s contract was hurt by signing so late in the process with so few suitors.
That said, I do think it’s a good starting point. The x-factors, in my mind, are Patrick Corbin and Clayton Kershaw. The latter is simple. If he opts out, one of the game’s best arms will be available, further complicating the market. But with Corbin ascending whereas Keuchel more-or-less descended to his current form, teams might want Corbin more, which could limit Keuchel’s earning power.
But I’m going to stick with the Arrieta model. I think he’ll get four years, though, and because estimates work better as round figures, I’ll go with $100 million over four years.
The Case For Signing Dallas Keuchel: At his best, few pitchers are better workhorses than Keuchel. Despite two injury-shortened seasons, Keuchel has thrown the 13th-most innings since 2014. You might say, “big deal, Julio Teheran has thrown the ninth-most innings since 2014.” You’re not wrong, but Keuchel has about twice the fWAR in the same time frame. You’re not only getting a guy with three 200-inning campaigns over the last five years, but you’re getting a good pitcher in the process. He doesn’t eat innings – he wins games.
While we certainly will talk more about the injuries, the fact that he has three 200-inning seasons, including last year, is a big deal. The Braves could use a consistent innings-guy who can give you six innings or more just about every time out. They certainly have a number of arms that could develop into that type of pitcher, but for now, it might be a good idea to grab one like Keuchel you can build around.
Keuchel is also quite suited for the Atlanta Braves. No starter with at least 100 starts over the last five years has a better ground-ball rate than Keuchel. Here is something that kind of surprises me. I thought the infield mix that included Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman would be a solid defensive unit. It’s actually not. Keuchel would benefit greatly with a defense that includes Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, and Johan Camargo. Many, myself included, believe the Braves should target groundballers especially in this era of homers and more homers.
We often talk about exit velocity – most of the time for hitters. One of the things that’s very intriguing about Keuchel is how he limits exit velocity. In the four years that we’ve charted the category, Keuchel has finished in the Top 5% in lowest exit velocity. He also finished in the Top 8% in lowest barrel percentage last year. That’s why, over the last four years, he has an expected wOBA 28 points below the league average.
One last thing. Not that any pitcher should ever be signed for this, but Keuchel is also a great defender. That does help considering the fact he’s a groundballer.
The Case Against: Let’s start with the obvious. Shoulder issues and neck concerns in back-to-back years is never a good thing. Fortunately, surgery was never needed, but Keuchel has not been the same since. Again, he’s been productive, just not ace-level stuff.
There’s also been a few unsettling trends. Keuchel’s groundball rate fell 13% compared to 2017 and was 5% his career average in 2018. Groundball rate has fell a bit in each of the last three seasons, but a loss like Keuchel saw is troubling. It could be a random fluctuation of the numbers or a result of throwing more four-seamers than he did in in the previous three seasons – along with throwing more cutters and less sinkers. Nevertheless, it is a worrisome stat because the one thing that could be a sign that groundballer is “losing it” is a declining groundball rate. It’s only one season, though.
Another number that stands out a bit to me – the lowest swinging strike percentage of his career since his rookie 2012 campaign. While Keuchel has never looked like a strikeout pitcher outside of 2015, he did keep his K-rate over 20% the last two seasons before it fell to 17.5% this season. Again, one season fluctuations can happen, but when we look for signs of decline in a pitcher, falling strikeout rate and groundball rate are red flags.
My Two Cents: I started this profile against signing Keuchel, wavered as I started to look at his ability to get the Braves 200 innings of better ball than Julio Teheran, and am back against it. There are too many questions here for me to want to invest a contract with the potential to hit nine figures considering the red flags. Of course, many of those red flags may not actually be red flags. Nevertheless, the Braves can’t have another Derek Lowe contract where they are paying another team just to take Keuchel away.
But what do you think? Am I being too much of a pessimist and missing something? Or is Keuchel the right fit for a young Braves pitching staff? Let me know below and remember to follow me on Twitter.