The Verdict on Dallas Keuchel’s Bounceback Chances
In 2015 Dallas Keuchel went 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA and 216 strikeouts in 232 innings and rode that wave all the way to the American League Cy Young Award. Many fantasy owners owed their league championships to the crafty lefty’s sudden rise to the top of the pitching ranks. But that season was not a total fluke considering he delivered a 12-9 record and a 2.93 ERA with 146 punchouts in 200 innings the year before. So what happened last year to cause such a big letdown? After being an early-round draft pick and a high-priced trade target last spring he screwed the pooch with a 9-12 record and a 4.55 ERA before getting shut down in August with a tender shoulder. Will he bounce back or not?
Was he just unlucky?
Sometimes when a previously good pitcher has a bad year we can blame it on bad luck — such as an inflated BABIP or wacky sequencing. In Keuchel’s case we can’t rely on excuses. He had a .304 BABIP in 2016, which is only a little bit above the league average of .295. And considering that Keuchel is a strong ground ball pitcher we should expect his BABIP to be a little higher than league average (ground balls are more likely to become hits than fly balls). The real fluke was that he had a .269 BABIP in his Cy Young 2015 season.
Keuchel was unlucky on his strand rate last season. His Left On Base percentage (LOB%) was only 68.4%, which is way below the league average of 72.8%. That means a higher than normal number of baserunners he allowed ended up coming around to score, and in most cases that is not something the pitcher has much control over. So we can expect his LOB% to improve next year and that will help improve his ERA as well.
Keuchel also suffered from an inflated home run to fly ball rate (HR/FB%) that was 16.4% compared to a league average of 12.5% (usually the league average is 10% but it was 25% higher last year, probably due to changes inside the ball but nobody has proven that yet). Some pitchers do carry HR/FB% rates that are higher or lower than normal throughout their careers. Keuchel’s career isn’t long enough yet to say whether that is true of him, but moving forward we should expect his HR/FB% to resemble his career rate, which is 14.5%. That means he is likely to give up fewer home runs per fly ball next year than he did last year. That is a good sign.
Worm Burner Extraordinaire
Keuchel is an excellent ground ball pitcher. In fact his ground ball percentage of 56.7% was the second highest in baseball last year, trailing only Marcus Stroman’s 60.1%. Keuchel’s career 58.9% ground ball rate is the fourth-highest of any pitcher since they started keeping a record of the stat in 2002 (trailing only Jason Grimsley, Brandon Webb and Derek Lowe; minimum 800 innings pitched). So to suffice it to say that Keuchel is an extreme ground ball pitcher, and that class of pitcher does not allow very many home runs. If a pitcher has a high career HR/FB% — like Keuchel does — the best way to alleviate that is to not give up many fly balls. Keep the ball on the ground and it won’t go over the fence. Keuchel is one of the best ever at that, and that is an indication he is unlikely to give up more than a homer per nine innings like he did last season (1.07 HR/9). It’s another reason to expect a better ERA this year than last.
Keuchel can be said to be the most accurate pitcher in baseball because he was the league leader in the smallest distance between the catcher’s target location and the spot where the catcher actually gloved the ball. That is a sign of great command. Despite that stellar control, Keuchel saw his walk rate go from 1.98 BB/9 in 2015 all the way up to 2.57 BB/9 in 2016. That is still much better than the league average of 2.99 walks per nine innings. It was almost exactly at his career average of 2.57 BB/9 that is inflated by his first two years in the league when he was not a good pitcher to put it kindly (he had a 5.27 ERA in 85.1 innings in 2012 and a 5.15 ERA in 153.2 innings in 2013 before his breakout 2.104 campaign). Given his ability to place the ball very near where he aims it we should have some confidence he will improve upon his walk rate next season and get back closer to the 1.98 and 2.16 BB/9 rates he had in 2015 and 2014. It is another indication he is a good candidate for a bounceback.
Applying the Brakes
Keuchel saw his fastball velocity decline a full mile per hour last year. After averaging 90.4 MPH in 2014 and 2015 he dropped down to 89.3 MPH last year. I thought perhaps the decline could be attributed to the shoulder injury that ended his season on August 27th. Was he pitching with a sore arm that gradually got bad enough to shut him down? Brooks Baseball shows Keuchel’s velocity started off at 88.0 MPH in April and gradually rose every month of the season, topping out at 90.1 MPH in August just before he was shut down. The velocity decline is a bit concerning. He now has below average giddy-up even for a lefthander. It is not a problem yet but will be if it drops much further.
Keuchel’s strikeout rate of 7.71 K/9 last year was actually the second-best of his career and is right at the league average of 7.67 K/9. Strikeout rate is important in real life pitching (and even more so in fantasy because strikeouts are a scoring category) but he can still be an above-average starting pitcher due to his low walk rate. His K-BB% of 13.7% was better than the league average of 12.3% (these league average rates are among all starting pitchers).
So What is the Verdict on Keuchel?
So to sum up all of Keuchel’s “parts”, he is an extreme ground ball pitcher (a good thing) and has a good K-BB% (an essential thing). He plays for a team that will score some runs in his support (helping him earn wins). He has a very strong track record of success in the two seasons prior to his disappoining 2016 (you have to have a good “back” in order to bounce back, am I right?). Even though he had a 4.55 ERA last year his 3.87 FIP was better, and so were his 3.53 xFIP, 3.72 DRA and 3.77 SIERA.
His projections for 2017 also predict a nice bounceback effort for Keuchel: ZiPS projects a 3.66 ERA. Steamer projects a 3.53 ERA. Pecota projects a 3.55 ERA. The projections are consistent across the board. Those are not ace numbers but are definitely good enough to help your fantasy team climb the standings.
Before you fire off a trade offer for him, it may be wise to wait until closer to Opening Day. Watch him throw this spring and see if his velocity is back up to 90 MPH. Make sure he is fully recovered before you pay the price to get him. He looked good in his first Grapefruit League start, tossing three scoreless innings against the Nationals on March 12th.
The Verdict: Dallas Keuchel will return to fantasy usefulness. Expect something like a 14-10 record and a 3.60 ERA with 170 strikeouts in 200 innings pitched. That would make him a solid SP2 in a 12-15 team fantasy league. Chances are his perceived value among owners in most fantasy leagues has fallen below that SP2 threshhold — making him a good trade target in dynasty leagues or a mid-round sleeper grab in re-draft leagues.
Agree? Disagree? Did you trade for him? Tell me in the comments below.
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Follow Nick Doran on Twitter @RealNickDoran. He writes for Rotoworld and Redleg Nation in addition to TDG.