On FanGraphs ranking of 2020 free-agent starting pitchers, Dallas Keuchel was #5. Would Keuchel deliver fair value to the Blue Jays?
In previous articles, I identified Michael Pineda, Zack Wheeler, and Hyun-Jin Ryu as free agent starters who could deliver fair value given their expected contract terms. Dallas Keuchel, a Cy Young Award winner, has a resume that warrants serious consideration as a Blue Jays target. The question to address is whether Keuchel’s expected performance level will justify the predicted value of his next contract.
Note that this article is not about if the Blue Jays will sign Keuchel; it is a piece that examines the following:
- The level of performance that should be expected from Keuchel; and
- The contract terms that would be reasonable given his projected performance
Keuchel was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 7th round of the 2009 MLB June Amateur Draft and made his MLB debut on June 17, 2012. His best season to date was 2015 when he posted an ERA, FIP, SIERA, and fWAR of 2.48, 2.91, 2.84, and 5.7, respectively. Keuchel was recognized for his excellence by winning the 2015 American League Cy Young Award. His 2016 season was affected by a lingering shoulder issue; he posted a 4.55 ERA and was shut down in August after pitching 168 innings. Keuchel missed 59 days in 2017 due to neck issues, which limited his innings to 145.
After the conclusion of the 2018 MLB season, the Astros made a 1-year, $17.9 million Qualifying Offer to Keuchel, which he rejected. He was unable to secure a new contract until June, 2019 when he signed a one-year, $13 million deal with the Atlanta Braves. Accordingly, there are no draft-pick compensation or international signing bonus pool money ramifications for a team that signs Keuchel after the 2019 season.
Pitch and batted ball profile
Brooks Baseball describes the 2019 Keuchel as follows:
"His sinker has heavy sinking action, is a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers’ sinkers, has surprisingly little armside run and has slightly below average velo. His cutter has some natural sink and has strong cutting action. His change is a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers’ changeups, dives down out of the zone and has slightly below average velo. His slider has short glove-side cut, has below average velo, results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ sliders and has some two-plane movement. His fourseam fastball is straight as an arrow, has some natural sinking action and has slightly below average velo."
Table 1 shows that there has been a decline in the performance level of Keuchel since his Cy Young season. His Barrel %, Hard Hit %, xwOBA and xwOBACON have crept up since 2015; Keuchel’s 2019 Hard % and xwOBA ranked 35th and 34th percentile, respectively. His batted ball profile also shows that he induced ground balls at a rate (60.1%) that is higher than the MLB average of 45.4%. His fly-ball rate is 8.5 percentage points lower than the MLB average. These latter two metrics are positive omens given a potential Keuchel switch to the American League East and the Rogers Centre specifically.
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Table 2 illustrates some statistics of note from Keuchel’s 2017-2019 campaigns. The highlights are as follows:
- In terms of quintile breaks for ERA, FIP, and SIERA, Keuchel was a #1 starter in 2017
- In both 2018 and 2019, his relative ERA ranking declined into #2 starter territory and his SIERA hovered near the #2/#3 quintile breakpoint
- Keuchel’s HR/9 was 63rd percentile in 2019, which was not nearly as good as 2017 (85th) and 2018 (89th)
- Given that Keuchel did not have the benefit of Spring Training in 2019 if you exclude his 10 innings pitched in June, his post-June ERA and FIP were 3.55 and 4.45, respectively
- Those marks would have placed him in the 81st percentile in ERA and 52nd in FIP
In summary, Keuchel’s ERA in each of the past three seasons places him at least in the top-third of starters. However, the better predictive stats (SIERA, FIP, and xwOBA) strongly indicate that his ERA may be the benefactor of good defense and/or good fortune.
According to FanGraphs 2018 park factors for home runs (2019 data is not available yet), the park factor for the Braves was 96 and 102 at Rogers Centre; the league average park factor is set at 100. The Rogers Centre had 4% more home runs than the league average park (halved so 104 becomes 102 in 81 games). At the home of the Braves, home runs were 8% lower than they would be at the league average park. The 2018 park factor for the Astros was 101.
There are quantifiable differences pitching to National League East teams compared to American League East teams. In 2019, NL East teams (ex-Atlanta), hit 834 home runs; AL East teams (ex-Toronto) hit 981 home runs (18% more). These NL East teams produced a wRC+ of 94; the AL East teams noted generated a 103 wRC+.
In 2019, the average ERA, FIP, and SIERA for AL starters were 4.76, 4.63, and 4.59, respectively. The comparable NL stats are 4.33, 4.39, and 4.50, respectively.
Given the noted park, division, and league factors, we should expect Keuchel to have higher HR/9, ERA, FIP, and SIERA numbers as an American League starter compared to his 2019 season in the National League (all things being equal).
The contract analysis has three steps:
- Determine a non-Blue Jays specific contract value for Keuchel
- Address Blue Jays-specific issues
- If applicable, evaluate compensation draft pick and the reduction of international signing bonus pool money (“Bonus Pool”) ramifications
For a detailed analysis of the three steps noted, please refer to Schedule A.
A summary of these steps is as follows:
- Before considering Steps 2 or 3, a rational, non-Blue Jays specific contract for Keuchel would be a 3-year, $52.8 million deal (see Table 3)
- Assuming that the Blue Jays have to pay a 20%-premium to attract free agents (taxes and other factors), a 3-year, $63.4 million contract would be reasonable
- The draft-pick compensation and international bonus pool money ramifications are not applicable with the signing of Keuchel
There are some red flags to be aware of concerning Keuchel:
- His 2019 xwOBA suggests that Keuchel will be a #4 starter next season
- His relative SIERA performance indicates that Keuchel will be a low #2/high #3 in 2020
- The Braves 2019 defense ranked 11th, 17th, and 8th in DRS, UZR/150, and Def, respectively
- On the other hand, the Blue Jays were 20th, 26th, and 24th in the comparable metrics
- Given that Keuchel is a ground ball pitcher, we should expect a higher ERA from him in a 2020 Blue Jays uniform compared to his 2019 season due to the difference between the quality of the Braves defense and that of the Jays (all things being equal)
- Keuchel is a ground ball pitcher and there is some evidence that those types of pitchers do not age as well as the average pitcher, which is notable because Keuchel will be 32 next season
It is important to note that a reasonable contract value falls within a range of other reasonable contract values; call it a zone of reasonableness. There is not a precise number for a contract; it is not like going to the grocery store to buy broccoli. For example, my upper-end for a 3-year deal for Keuchel would be a $70 million deal, which is pretty close to my $63.4 figure. In my view, the recent performance decline would make me hesitant to exceed that $70 million ceiling. For the same reason, I would not be comfortable with a 4-year contract for Keuchel.
The last word
Keuchel is a free agent worth targeting but with caution. Based upon fWAR projections, he profiles as a #3 starter in 2020 and 2021, and a #4 in 2022. His SIERA and batted ball profile show a pitcher in decline; albeit one who will likely be a solid pitcher over the course of a 3-year contract. Keuchel should be a free agent on the Blue Jays list of starting pitchers to seriously pursue.