Why the Yankees Passed on Dallas Keuchel

The Evil Empire is no more.

Throughout history, the Yankees have been portrayed as Major League Baseball’s chief oppressor, needlessly feasting on the weaker, less financially able organizations. For the most part, they’ve fit the bill, never shying away from adding megastars like Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, and CC Sabathia, and thus annually accumulating a payroll much richer than the rest of the league.

Factor in a staggering 27 World Series Championships and it’s not hard to see why opposing teams are a tad resentful. But times have changed.

The 2019 Yankees are built on young talent and depth. Gary Sanchez ($669,800), Gleyber Torres ($605,200), Luke Voit ($573,200), and Clint Frazier ($563,300) are the only Yankees with double-digit home runs and have been major contributors in stabilizing their first-place lineup with franchise-cornerstone Aaron Judge ($684,300) on the IL.

Not only that, but the Yankees have often recently been outbid while vying for the services of marquee free agents.

Most notably, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, two of the youngest, most talented free agents on the market in history, were both rumored to be interested in joining the Yankees this winter. Machado was dined, but never officially offered a contract. The Yankees chose DJ LeMahieu instead. Harper was supposedly never even given a phone call. Brian Cashman and company felt better bringing back aging Brett Gardner to man left instead.

Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, making approximately $55 million total this season, have a combined 1.8 WAR.

DJ LeMahieu alone, making $12 million in 2019, has 2.4 WAR.

Most recently, the Atlanta Braves outbid the Yankees for the services of former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, with the latter viewed at one point as the favorites to land the star.

Most fans were upset. They shouldn’t be.

Dallas Keuchel is a good pitcher, but not a great one.

Here are Keuchel’s rolling averages in ground-ball rate (in red) as well as ERA (in blue). It begins in 2015, Keuchel’s Cy Young season.

As you can see, Keuchel’s success has heavily correlated with keeping the ball on the ground. The higher the ground-ball rate, the better the ERA. The Yankees adore left-handed pitching, especially those who induce ground balls (possibly why Zack Britton was the Yankees’ highest-paid signing this offseason).

But hey, Keuchel has still been effective, as he led the league in ground-ball rate in 2018! While that is true, his ground-ball rate was a “mere” 53.7%. It was 61.7% in 2015.

To better evaluate the effect of this change, let’s look at xwOBA. For those who don’t know, xwOBA stands for expected weighted on-base average, which essentially measures how well opposing batters should have performed based on their exit velocities and launch angles. If batters are hitting the ball consistently hard against the pitcher, and notably in this case, in the air, it will show up here, regardless of any good or bad luck on either side.

In this statistic, Keuchel has been about what you’d expect: solid. Going back to his 2015 campaign, Keuchel finished with a .265 xwOBA. That number puts him slightly outside of the 90th percentile. In 2016, it ballooned to .315, which put him at more or less league average.

Since then, he’s lived near .290, which is a respectable number, yet not one of an ace pitcher relied on to win playoff games against the likes of Chris Sale and Justin Verlander.

Now that we’ve established who Keuchel is, we must put it all in context. If the Yankees are desperate enough for starting pitching, the price is the price, and the Yankees should’ve paid up. But I’m not sure that they are yet.

The Yankees are still hanging on to first place in the AL East. Didi Gregorius has returned to the lineup, with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton also ready to contribute again.

The Yankees are really good, likely already good enough to win the division, but the starting pitching will hold them back in the long run. Domingo German is not an ace, and is now injured. James Paxton and Sabathia both have bad knees. J.A. Happ has been shaky at best. Luis Severino is not close to returning. It isn’t just the starting pitching struggles itself that’s an issue, but the wear on the bullpen.

With that in mind, Keuchel seemed to fit. He would eat a lot of innings. He could be your fourth starter in a playoff series if need be. He’s a former Cy Young award winner and World Series champion lefty who can still keep the ball on the ground and win you games. But the Yankees did not budge, with Atlanta besting their offer by only $1.5 million or so. Why?

Maybe it was the fear of the second luxury tax threshold, where the addition of Keuchel would essentially paralyze them at the deadline if they felt the need to stay under. It could be that they felt he is no longer the same type of pitcher he once was.

I believe they have another target in mind.

While it could be a possibility, Max Scherzer’s price tag is probably too rich for the Yankees, whose farm system is suddenly a weakness. Madison Bumgarner is a name frequently mentioned, but I find it unlikely the Yankees would ante up and overpay for an injury-prone pitcher in decline.

How about Matthew Boyd? His is a name that has been thrown around recently, with the Yankees rumored to have shown interest in the lefty. Personally, I think those rumors hold weight. While he doesn’t keep the ball on the ground like Keuchel, his approach is similar: Against lefties, keep the ball down and away.

With the short porch in right field, and hitters like Andrew Benintendi and Michael Brantley figuring to play in some important games in the Bronx, keeping the ball away from lefties and forcing them to hit the ball the other way is key. The difference is how they pitch to righties. Below is a chart showing where Keuchel pitched to righties in 2018, from the catcher’s point of view.

As you can see, everything down, but also a lot of balls away. For a pitcher like Keuchel, who is in the bottom 10% in velocity, leaving the ball on the outer half of the plate to strong righties makes him vulnerable to opposite field homers. Compare that to Boyd, who is much more aggressive pitching to right-handed hitters.

He throws a large number of pitches in on righties, not allowing sluggers to extend their arms and fly the ball the other way as they often do to Keuchel. Even though Boyd’s velocity isn’t great, a spin rate on his fastball in the 80th percentile, when well located, can tie up even the best hitters.

With a plethora of right-handed power hitters like Alex Bregman, J.D. Martinez, and George Springer headed to October, having a lefty on the staff who is not afraid of challenging them inside is a major advantage.

Not only will Matt Boyd cost the Yankees little money, but he’s also under team control for three more years. He may be better than Keuchel already, owning a .278 xwOBA so far in 2019, which, as you know now, is better than Keuchel has had in years. At 28 years old, he has only thrown slightly over 500 career innings, meaning there’s possibly still room to grow for the lefty. Adding Boyd would also allow the Yankees to make a number of other moves at the deadline, whether it be a bat or yet another bullpen weapon. It’s a no brainer.

While you would have to cough up some exciting farm talent, I wouldn’t expect the price tag to be much higher than Sonny Gray’s in 2017, a crop which has returned a combined -0.6 WAR to Oakland so far, although it is still early. Cashman has done a good job holding on to top talents and letting lesser pieces go as of late, which the Yankees organization believes they can continue to do.

Dallas Keuchel would’ve been a good fit in the Bronx. Matthew Boyd would be too, as well as the multiple other targets the Yankees are keeping an eye on. In the end, Keuchel was not the best fit for the Yankees, and if you know Brian Cashman, you know if the shoe doesn’t fit, he’ll go shop somewhere else.

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3 years ago

Cashman should lead a package for Scherzer to Bauer with Frazier; if the former, they likely will have to include Andujar in there. A lot of that will be impacted by how much salary they eat, and the deferred compensation could be problematic. Cashman has already said as much about rentals vs. long-term pitchers.

Fans need to understand that Max is old: he’s 13 years older than Torres, 11 years older than Frazier, 11 years older than Andujar, and 7 years older than Bauer. He also costs ~$30MM more than any of those players, aside from Bauer (~$20MM).

Furthermore, he is currently 7 years older than Sale was, when CWS traded him, and costs ~$20MM more than he did.

A GM will be fully aware of all of that and won’t make a roster-depleting move, to boost a playoff run.

3 years ago

It’s disingenuous to summarize the package the Yankees gave up for Sonny Gray as worth -0.6 WAR. That’s essentially meaningless information to use to judge a trade from 2017. It makes much more sense to say that the Yankees traded their #4, #8, and #12 prospects (based on MLB Pipeline’s list) at the time for Gray. That’s a steep package, and Boyd would probably require a more attractive package than that, based on Gray’s track record at the time of the trade.

Also, describing Bumgarner as injury-prone is also a misleading statement. He got hurt in a dirtbike accident, and broke his hand on a comebacker. His velocity this season is back to 2015 levels and the stuff looks solid. There is some good information in the article, but sloppy characterizations detract from the overall idea.

3 years ago
Reply to  Scott

At the time, the Gray trade was a win-win, and Gray performed admirably for the Yankees that season. Gray was also the same age as Sale, when Boston picked him up for a similar prospect package and much cheaper. Boyd is a year older than Grays was and doesn’t have the same promising track record, so maybe he won’t command much more.

Regarding Bumgarner, he had a dirt bike accident and was hit by a comebacker: those are not pitching injuries. I’m with you 100% on finding these slights against his durability to be unfounded.

3 years ago

I agree with all of this. Boyd should be the target, but I think we now need a comparison between Boyd and Stroman. I’ve seen some Yankees fans say they want Stroman instead because he “has pitched in big games”.

I do agree and think the Yankees look for a very specific pitcher, and if you are gonna make a big move, get a pitcher you’re comfortable with instead of getting a pitcher for the sake of getting a pitcher. The Yanks got Lance Lynn out of nowhere last year and he had good success with them , I think we could see the Yankees make a minor move like that (picking out a pitcher who they feel they can improve and get for minimal cost/prospects) as well as a big move for a SP like Boyd.

3 years ago

Therein lies the conundrum: do you bet on the guy who appears “to have figured it out” or the one who “has a great track record, but appears to be impacted by injuries?”

Tyler Burchmember
3 years ago

“As you can see, Keuchel’s success has heavily correlated with keeping the ball on the ground. ”

I don’t think this is really easily seen, especially for 2015 and 2017 – do you have some correlation coefficient or something like that?