Dallas Keuchel and diminishing returns

Dallas Keuchel’s free agency poses some challenging questions for potential suitors. Keuchel is a proven postseason performer, a Cy Young award winner and generally considered among the sport’s elite. He’s about a top-30 pitcher, right? Something like that.

But there are some troubling developments under the hood that might keep him from the 5-year-deal he is after.

Keuchel is the consummate ground-ball pitcher. He pummels the bottom of the strike zone with his two-seam fastball, trying to con hitters into weak contact in front of the plate. Notice how dark it is toward the bottom-right corner. That’s no accident.


He has solid command and despite high-80s velocity, the movement is nasty: it’s worked. He rightfully won the 2015 AL Cy Young award and produced an epic postseason start that same year, dominating the New York Yankees in the Wild Card game. When Keuchel is on and he has hitters off-balance, he’s one of my favorite pitchers to watch. Everyone delights in watching Chris Sale or Max Scherzer tear someone apart — don’t overlook the joy of how Keuchel does it.

In 2015 especially, Keuchel was striking out plenty of hitters and limiting the free passes to go along with the groundballs. It made him a truly elite pitcher, right in time for the Houston Astros to kick into high-gear. But in 2018, that tide turned just a bit. The ground balls began to take to the air and the strikeouts slowly evaporated. Look at his last four seasons:

Season Ground ball rate Strikeout percentage
2015 61.7% 23.7%
2016 56.7% 20.5%
2017 66.8% 21.4%
2018 56.7% 17.5%

Some fluctuation is normal. But for a team considering writing a large check to Keuchel, that 13 percent drop in his bread-and-butter coupled with the diminished K rate is worrisome. Keuchel lives and breathes off the ground balls. If that number stays in the low-to-mid 50s, you’ve got a problem.

Obviously, fewer ground balls meant more runs allowed last year. His ERA crept up to 3.74 (FIP of 3.69). Without question that’s still good, especially in the AL. But consider the benefits of pitching in front of the stellar Houston Astros defense (particularly third baseman Alex Bregman and second baseman Jose Altuve), the excellent shifting they employ and the not-so-subtle hosing down of the infield. If Keuchel signs elsewhere he might not find such sophistication elsewhere.

Keuchel turns 31 on Jan. 1. He’s probably just on the far edge of his peak. If you sign Keuchel to the 5-year-deal he wants, you’re hoping against hope that he continues producing ground balls forever and that he maintains his velocity. Last year he averaged 89.3 on his fastball. That’s livable. But is 88.3? He doesn’t have much ground to lose, relative to the cost. He’s not looking for a JA Happ type contract.

That’s the risk. Keuchel on a 1 or 2-year commitment is a fundamentally different proposition. He’ll still likely eat a bunch of innings and be a solid-to-good starter. But if the deal creeps past that, the odds of him becoming a pumpkin start to rise. I might be overreacting to the velocity thing — if anyone could survive on even less velocity, it might be Keuchel. I could be totally wrong. But a contract at five years feels too long, especially when only a handful of teams want the services of this winter’s two generational free agents.

And what does Houston do? Do they want Keuchel back? It would seem like returning home is the best option for the lefty. But the Astros are smart. If they pass on Keuchel despite losing Lance McCullers Jr for the year and watching Charlie Morton bolt to Tampa Bay, that’s a major red flag.


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