Welcome to Free Agency 2.0, I guess. It’s hard for me to get even pretend excited about the fact that teams might finally be willing to sign players like Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel now that there isn’t a draft pick attached to them. It’s clearly bad for baseball and yet another sign that the fundamental economics of the sport are broken. But that’s another post for another day.
Anyway, this is all relevant to the Yankees. The onslaught of Yankee injuries has, of course, impacted the rotation, most notably with staff ace Luis Severino, who has yet to throw a pitch in 2019. James Paxton and CC Sabathia have also missed time, and with fragile injury histories, may indeed do so again this season. Masahiro Tanaka, as well, is an injury risk.
This is on top of the fact that New York is only getting an average 5.2 innings and 83 pitches per start from its starting rotation. I wrote yesterday about how the bullpen has been otherworldly, and that’s cool and good, but it would be nice to see some starting pitching length to ease the burden on the big bullpen arms. All those high-leverage innings add up.
This all leads to a potential marriage with Dallas Keuchel. As Steven noted on Saturday, the Yanks have been linked to Keuchel several times over the past few days. Oddly enough, the Yanks weren’t linked to Keuchel at all (not even once) this offseason. Things change. Let’s take a look at what Keuchel brings to the table and then see if he makes sense for New York.
The 31-year-old former Cy Young winner entered free agency for the first time last winter after spending a part of 7 seasons with the Houston Astros. He was a member of the World Series winning team in 2017. If you’re looking for a name, Dallas Keuchel has it.
He went 12-11 last year in Houston, pitching to a 3.74 ERA (3.69 FIP) in 204.2 innings. That’s about who he is these days. Since he won the Cy Young (back in 2015, when he also eliminated the Yankees in the Wild Card Round), Keuchel has a 3.77 ERA (3.69 FIP) in 518.1 innings. That’s about 5 percent better than league average. A solid pitcher, that is. No more, no less.
He is your standard ground ball pitcher, pounding batters with his sinker 57% of the time, inducing ground balls about 60% of the time during his career. He also features a four-seam, a cutter, a change, and a slider. He’s a true five-pitch pitcher, though he has a low spin-rate (most sinkerballers do, that’s the point) and pitches at a low-velocity.
A lefty who keeps the ball on the ground can seem tailor-made for Yankee Stadium (particularly with the Yanks’ newfound defensive prowess in the infield), but there are some red flags here. Take a look at this:
|GB%||K%||Soft Contact%||Hard Contact%|
Keuchel saw his ground ball rate drop 13 percentage points and hard hit percentage increase 4 percentage points in 2018. There’s clearly been some year-to-year fluctuation here, so I’d be less worried about this…were his K% not trending downward over time. It suffered a 4 percentage point drop from 2017 to 2018, meaning Keuchel is missing fewer bats and inducing fewer ground balls. Couple that with an 88 mph sinker, and you have some worrying signs. Keuchel’s profile makes him seem older than he is. That’s a worrying sign, especially considering the potential context of the hitter-heavy AL East and homer-happy Yankee Stadium.
But here’s the thing: that would matter more if it were a long-term deal. That’s not going to happen. On a prorated one-year deal that will last only two-thirds of the season, though, these concerns matter less. Significantly less.
Basically, what you see with Keuchel is what you get: an average to an above-average starting pitcher who can give you consistent innings. There’s real value in that.
Does He Make Sense for the Yanks?
The Yankees starting rotation is still filled with question marks, though it’s been (unsurprisingly) effective so far in 2019. The simultaneous Paxton/Sabathia injuries a few weeks ago really hammered home how fragile the rotation is, though. Even if that’s true for every team, and it is, the Yankees should want to put themselves in the best possible position to win. The goal is to win a championship this year, after all.
So with that in mind, I think Keuchel is a clear fit for New York. Although it would probably take him two weeks (figure, what, 2-3 tune up AAA starts before he’s MLB ready?) to join the team, the Yanks would be adding a veteran, MLB-quality starting pitcher to their rotation. That’s a real improvement from Luis Cessa or David Hale. Again, the goal is to win a championship now, and it’s hard to argue that Keuchel, warts and all, wouldn’t result in an automatic upgrade.
(As a brief aside, this reminds me a bit of the trade for J.A. Happ last year. The Yanks needed a guy who could provide consistent length and quality innings, and even though there were some “warning” signs, it’s obvious that Happ solidified the Yankee rotation in the second half last year. This is a similar situation, at least to me.)
At this point, you’d think that he would sign a prorated deal around the value qualifying offer, which, based on some back-of-the-envelope math, is about $10-11 million. That’s it. No hidden costs. No draft pick, nothing. That’s low enough to keep the Yanks under the third tier of the luxury tax threshold—something we all know is important to management, regardless of how we feel about it.
Keuchel not perfect nor the type of pitcher (high-velocity, high-strikeout) the front office favors these days, but the 31-year-old sinkerballer seems to come at the right cost for the Yanks. He also offers the consistent innings the team needs. Seems like a match is possible, if not likely. If the Yanks do decide to move forward and bring him aboard, fans can feel reasonably confident that their starting rotation improved.