Yesterday, the Braves made some headlines by signing Dallas Keuchel. The former Cy Young winner will be receiving a 1 year deal worth about 13 million after prorating. For a 31 year old with a career 3.66 ERA and a 3.72 FIP, that seems to be a pretty good deal. Now before jumping up and down for joy, it’s important to bear a few things in mind. While Keuchel most certainly represents an upgrade, that does little to show what sort of impact should be expected.
Looking at Keuchel through an unbiased lens, it’s not hard to see what makes the former Astro a bit controversial. He doesn’t possess elite velocity, normally topping out max at around 93 mph. He’s not a high strikeout guy, with only 1 season over 8 k/9. A command over stuff type of pitcher, Keuchel is the type of signing that would usually elicit very little fanfare. He’s a good groundball pitcher who doesn’t walk many and usually keeps the ball in the yard, but there’s one major exception: the 2015 AL Cy Young.
In 2015, Keuchel was absolutely one of the best pitchers in baseball. He started 33 games, winning 20 of them. He gave up homers at a minuscule 0.66 per 9/IP. Pair a BB/9 under 2 with a career best 8.38 K/9 and a staggering 61.7% GB rate and it’s easy to see why he won the Cy Young. That 2015 season ended up being worth 5.6 fWAR, by far the best season he’s put up in his career. Unfortunately, that isn’t the Dallas Keuchel the Braves just acquired.
Remove the 2015 season from his resume and what Keuchel is becomes more clear. He’s a 2.5-3.5 war type of pitcher which, while certainly not elite, profiles as a very nice 3-4 in any rotation. He’s a guy who, like Julio Teheran, lives off of getting batters to swing at pitches outside the zone. The problem with that, however, is that hitters are becoming more and more willing to spit on pitches close to the edges and force pitchers to come into the zone. This makes Keuchel’s slider less effective, as evidenced in his pitch value metrics. This isn’t to say that Keuchel can’t be an effective pitcher. As a matter of fact, Keuchel had a small resurgence last season, even with higher contact rates and a plummeting GB%.
So what should you expect from Dallas? In past years I’ve compared Keuchel to Teheran as similar pitchers, but I don’t think that comparison truly applies. Now that I really think about it, Keuchel’s game is more reminiscent of Mike Soroka. Now that’s not to say he’s as good as Soroka, but their styles are very similar on the mound. Both make their living generating a high quantity of ground balls, but Soroka still has 96 in his back pocket to blow by you. Despite not having that type of velocity to fall back on, Keuchel should play an integral role in this rotation. He throws strikes, he’s consistent, and he’s not Kevin Gausman.
So what is the end result with Keuchel this season? At worst Atlanta gets a significant upgrade over Gausman for the back end of the rotation. A guy who may not have Gausman’s pure stuff, but far outstrips his ability to pitch. Best case? Jumping from the AL to the NL gives Keuchel a look at hitters more unfamiliar with him, allowing his sinker and slider to play up, and propel him back to the Cy Young type of performance he showed in 2015. Any way you slice it, Keuchel will provide serious depth to an already strong rotation. And at only 1 year and 13 million, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know what a good deal this could turn out to be.