Written by: James Schiano (@FreePeterAlonso)
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I don’t know what to make of Dallas Keuchel. There is so much evidence pulling me, and clearly many teams, in both directions regarding his future outlook.
On one hand, Keuchel is one of the more consistent pitchers in baseball over the past half-decade. He boasts Gold Gloves, a Cy Young award and several impressive post season performances.
On the other, the southpaw has been subpar in two of the last three seasons. He’s now 31-years-old and had an average fastball velocity of 89.3 mph last season. Nevertheless, Spring Training is here and Keuchel remains unsigned.
We are all painfully aware of the stagnant free agent market of recent offseasons, but it has rarely affected above average pitchers. Patrick Corbin and Nathan Eovaldi signed big deals what feels like eons ago. J.A. Happ, Charlie Morton, Lance Lynn, Mike Fiers and Garrett Richards all followed suit with multi-year contracts before the new year. So what’s the hold up with Keuchel?
Let’s start with the good. Keuchel fields the position extraordinarily well. If you (rightly) don’t use Gold Gloves (of which he’s won four out of the last five) to evaluate defensive prowess check out some of these tantalizing plays sandwiched between strikeouts.
More good: Keuchel’s career ERA, including a disastrous first two professional seasons, is 3.66. He’s won at least 12 games (I know) in four out of five seasons while averaging 190 innings per. An integral part of multiple postseason berths and a championship team, the left-hander is certainly battle tested.
Keuchel’s Statcast profile supports his counting stats. Excluding a not-so-good 2016 campaign, he has maintained well-above average peripherals the past five seasons, remaining in the top third of the league in opponents’ exit velocity, barrel %, hard hit rate and xwOBA.
How was he able to generate so much soft contact without missing many bats and having one of the slower average fastball velocities in the league? An absolutely-elite slider. It was the 15th-ranked pitch in all of baseball in 2015 based on pitch value, inducing a whopping .161 xwOBA in the process. Check out the wipeout slider during his dominant 2017 ALCS performance versus the Yankees. As you know, the Astros would go on to win the World Series.
After consistently posting swinging strike rates above 40-percent and GB% over 50-percent when throwing the slider, something happened to Keuchel’s ‘out’ pitch in 2018.
I want to reiterate, something happened to his slider. However, looking under the hood doesn’t necessarily reveal an obvious culprit. Keuchel threw it basically the same percentage of his pitches, at the same velocity, and it maintained the same number of rotations per minute. The only outlier is his SL% in 2016, far and away the worst year of his career!
While the pitch itself barely changed, its effectiveness plummeted. The once vaunted offering had a pitch value of -6.9 (not so nice) last season, which was the worst mark in all of baseball.
It’s as if batters were ready for it.
The slider’s O-Swing% sunk to a career low and the hitters who did chase it still made solid contact at a high rate. Consequently, the pitch’s BB% sank all the way to 0.9% from a previous career-low of 2.4%.
This may sound zany, but I really think Keuchel was tipping the pitch. All the generic and advanced analytics show that the pitch itself was astoundingly similar until it reached the plate. Below, from left to right, are the locations of Keuchel’s sliders in 2015, 2016 and 2018 respectively (he was injured throughout the 2017 season and, thus, threw less sliders). Incredibly similar!
Bringing all his offerings into perspective, Keuchel saw his O-Contact% shoot up as the whiff rate plummeted. Here are clips from a May outing last season versus the Rangers. Hitters are sitting on the slider.
I assume front offices are just as, if not more, torn on Keuchel than I am. Even with his warts, the profile of a grizzled veteran with a proven track record on the back-end of his prime once commanded a hefty fee on the open market. James Shields got 4 years and $75 million after his age 31 season in 2014. Jordan Zimmerman fetched 5 years for $110 million at 29-years-old in 2015, the same season the Giants famously gave 31-year-old Jeff Samardzjia $90 million over 5 years. The results for the aforementioned trio have been poor, but Keuchel has a better track record than any of those three pitchers.
If the player evaluation process was as intense five seasons ago as it is now (or if organizational management had found additional, extensive ways to manipulate the free agent market and the arbitration process), there is no chance Shields, Zimmerman and Samardzija could have dreamed of signing such mammoth deals. We can also be certain that Scott Boras is a bit… distracted… with other clients at the moment and is unable (or unwilling) to designate enough of his time and resources to negotiating on Keuchel’s behalf. I truly think the southpaw is a small adjustment away from regaining his form, but I’m not running to select him in redraft leagues after such an unconventional offseason.
Follow P365 writer James Schiano on Twitter! @FreePeterAlonso
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
Featured image courtesy of photographer Karen Warren and the Houston Chronicle