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What to Make of Dallas Keuchel

Despite the generally slow free agent market and the continuing increase of bullpen usage, starting pitchers have done fairly well for themselves this winter. Patrick Corbin inked a nine-figure deal, blowing past most projections to get a guaranteed $140 million. The Rays shelled out their largest free agent contract ever, giving Charlie Morton $30 million over two years. Nathan Eovaldi parlayed a strong second half and postseason heroics into a four-year, $67.5 million pact to return to Boston, and J.A. Happ got half that from the Yankees for his age 36 and 37 seasons. Even past-their-prime options such as Lance Lynn, Anibal Sanchez, and Matt Harvey were given eight figures, the former two on multi-year guarantees.

Yet arguably the most accomplished hurler among this year’s crop of free agent starters remains unsigned – Dallas Keuchel. FanGraphs’ Crowd Source and MLB Trade Rumors projections both had the 2015 Cy Young winner in the neighborhood of four years and $80 million, which would exceed Eovaldi’s deal for the second-highest guarantee among starters.

Of available starters, Keuchel was worth the second-most WAR last year (3.6, behind only Corbin’s 6.3), and projects to be the second-most valuable next year (3.3 WAR, just behind Corbin’s 3.5). Much has been made of his decline in punchouts (his strikeout rate dipped to 17.5% in 2018, fourth-lowest among qualified pitchers), but his velocity has remained steady and he’s continued to limit both walks and homers while inducing lots of ground balls. In 2018, Keuchel topped 200 innings for the third time in five seasons, and he’s been an above-average starter in all of those years.

At 31, he’s not young, but he’s younger than Happ (36), Morton (35), Sanchez (35), and Lynn (32), all of whom received multi-year deals. It’s fair to say that Keuchel doesn’t have the upside of Corbin or Eovaldi (or maybe even that of Morton or Yusei Kikuchi), but his consistency and track record should appeal to plenty of teams in need of a rotation upgrade.

Happ, a southpaw with a similar reputation for durability and above-average-but-not-elite performance, and Keuchel have been almost identical over the past three years (518 innings and 9.1 fWAR for Happ, 518.1 and 8.6 for Keuchel). But Happ is four years older, so over the course of his next contract, Keuchel’s output could quite reasonably look a lot like Happ’s recent past – that is, a 170-inning, 3-win metronome.

However, there seems to be some concern or trepidation surrounding Keuchel, a pitcher whose raw stuff was never overpowering, and the sustainability of his results. And looking at some of his underlying metrics, it’s easy to see why. Read the rest of this entry »