Opening Day is a few weeks away and Dallas Keuchel, the two-time all-star and 2015 American League Cy Young winner, remains unsigned. The 31-year-old left-hander turned down the Houston Astros’ one-year, $17.9 million qualifying offer in November in hopes of securing a more lucrative contract in free agency. That offer has yet to materialize, perhaps because agent Scott Boras set expectations a bit too high for what Keuchel offers as a pitcher.
For example, at this offseason’s general managers’ meetings, Boras declared Keuchel was “the Tom Glavine, Andy Pettitte of our generation,” and he was sure there would be “big demand for him for clubs who are interested in winning championships.”
Alas, there was not. Why? Perhaps because Keuchel doesn’t have an important quality most major league teams look for in their pitchers: high velocity.
Major league batters hit .280 with a .476 slugging percentage off fastballs with velocities between 80 and 90 mph in 2018; that dropped to .264 with a .433 slugging percentage against fastballs thrown 91 to 100 mph and even further (.192/.264) against fastballs hurled at 101 mph or more, though that territory is more often reserved for relievers.
According to data from Major League Baseball, Keuchel’s sinker, a pitch he used 42 percent of the time in 2018, averaged 89.1 mph, and batters hit .289 against the pitch with a low strikeout rate of 9 percent. His four-seam fastball was thrown harder (89.8 mph), but he only used it 12 percent of the time, placing his average fastball speed (89.3 mph) 54th out of 56 starters who qualified for the ERA title last season.
Three of the biggest contracts handed out to starting pitchers this offseason were to hurlers with better fastballs than Keuchel.
Patrick Corbin signed a six-year, $140 million contract with the Washington Nationals but the 29-year-old has a fastball that averages 91.3 mph and his four-seamer struck out batters 21 percent of the time. Nathan Eovaldi, a 29-year-old with a 98 mph fastball that held opposing batters to a .218 average with a 29 percent strikeout rate, signed a four-year, $68 million contract with the Boston Red Sox. J.A. Happ signed a two-year, $34 million contract with the New York Yankees a year after his fastball averaged 93 mph with a .203 average against and a 28 percent strikeout rate.
Low velocity at an advanced age leads to pessimistic projections for Keuchel in 2019. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS forecast has Keuchel recording a 13-9 record with a 3.68 ERA, production worth 3.1 wins above replacement. Steamer projections are similar: 11-9 with a 3.69 ERA and 2.8 wins above replacement. Neither of those estimates is worth big money on the open market.
Could Keuchel outperform those projections? Sure. But at 31 years old, it’s unreasonable to expect Keuchel’s velocity is going to rise going forward. In fact, we should start to see a decline, making him a huge risk for any team looking to add him to their rotation for anything resembling elite money.