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.
Though never a swing-and-miss artist, prime Keuchel still missed enough bats to be successful, but that ability seemed to evade him in 2018. In addition to the worrisome drop in strikeout rate, his overall contact rate jumped nearly six points to 81.6% (fifth-worst among qualified pitchers). Keuchel’s out-of-zone contact rate – where we’d like to see pitchers get chases and misses – jumped nine points to 72.6%, fourth-worst among qualified hurlers.
All five of his pitches (sinker, slider, cutter, changeup, four-seamer) generated fewer whiffs in 2018 than 2017, but the drop-off is most pronounced with his offspeed offerings.
Per Pitch Info’s Pitch Values, Keuchel’s changeup and slider both lost at least seven runs in value, and they posted negative run values for the first time since 2013.
The changeup lost 1.5 inches of vertical movement in 2018 and generated 30% fewer whiffs, but the bigger concern is the slider, which hitters swung and missed at barely half as often as in 2017. Keuchel’s slider, his second-most utilized pitch and primary offspeed offering, was knocked around at an unprecedented rate this past year, with batters hitting .252 (after not topping .200 from 2014-2017) and slugging .451 (after not topping .300 from 2014-2017).
Not generating whiffs is never a good sign, but it’s not a death sentence either. A number of quality pitchers like Jake Arrieta, Kyle Freeland, and Miles Mikolas cluster near Keuchel on the bottom of these contact-rate leaderboards, and it’s possible to be effective through suppressing hard contact and limiting walks. And Keuchel, despite a somewhat weakened repertoire, still excels in those areas.
Per Statcast, his xwOBACON (expected wOBA on contact) actually dropped slightly in 2018 to .321 (well below the league average of .364), and his 4.5% rate of barrels allowed was also comfortably below the league average of 6.1%. Keuchel’s hard-hit rate of 28.1% was fifth-best among qualified pitchers, and he posted a top-10 mark in HR/9 allowed. In the control department, he continued to thrive as well, with a walk rate of 6.6% (again, better than the league average of 8.2%) that reversed a worrisome 2017 spike to 8.0%.
So even with a diminished slider and changeup, Keuchel was still an elite contact manager. But without those two offspeed weapons, there’s less to keep hitters off his sinker, cutter, and four-seamer, all of which sit in the 87-90 mph range.
Keuchel’s margin for error as a soft-tosser was not big to begin with, and it’s not hard to see that becoming even thinner with less effective breaking stuff, (eventually) declining velocity, and not a lot of separation between his three hard offerings.
It’s interesting that the Astros, who know Keuchel best, offered him a $17.9M qualifying offer, but seem hesitant to commit to a longer-term deal despite being down three starters from last year. Houston’s primary catchers last season, Max Stassi and Martin Maldonado, both rated as above-average pitch framers, so perhaps there’s some concern that a pitcher who depends on control as much as Keuchel does is more susceptible to the quality of his receivers.
On the other hand, the results speak for themselves. Keuchel has always been a soft-tosser who lives on inducing weak ground balls and avoiding hard contact, and he’s been a top pitcher for the past half-decade with that profile. Even without his peak repertoire in 2018, he continued to produce at a high level. Nearly every contender would benefit from adding 2016-2018 Keuchel, and one could argue he’s already shown an ability to make adjustments as his stuff fades.
There’s some irony that Keuchel, a consistent and visually unspectacular starter, presents such an interesting case study in how teams project performance going forward. We’ve seen players who wait out the market eventually get their money, but we’ve seen it backfire too. As the other prominent starters have already found homes this offseason, Keuchel’s still playing the waiting game – and the jury’s still out on him.