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Dallas Keuchel could help the Yankees, but contract length is critical

Last winter, I was fairly open about my distaste for Dallas Keuchel. An aging lefty with mild velocity, dependent upon one pitch, on a multi-year commitment, is a petrifying thought. (Hi, JA Happ!) I didn’t support the idea of any team giving Keuchel a five-year deal, even pitching-strapped clubs like the Phillies or Reds; much less the Yankees, clad with Luis Severino, James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka leading the rotation. Add in the draft pick compensation and it wasn’t a hard choice. (Patrick Corbin was a different story … )

Life happens, though. Severino hasn’t thrown a pitch this season and might not. Paxton has been rough, then good, then hurt. (Ladies and gentlemen, the James Paxton experience.) Tanaka has been Tanaka; frustrating and captivating, sometimes all in the same start. For a Yankee team overrun by injuries (I’ll spare you the list), unassuming fill-ins have kept the team in first place. Domingo German had a sparkling spring, Gio Urshela pounds the ball and as some stars have returned, the team has been on quite a run.

Now the calendar plays a role in the Keuchel decision, as he no longer is tied to draft pick compensation (meaning, the Yanks won’t lose a pick for signing him). For a free agent with a mixed profile, this is fairly critical, and predictably the summer free agent bonanza has begun.

How would Keuchel fit with the Yanks this summer?

MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand has reported the Yanks are favorites to add Keuchel. That’s all well and fine, but my immediate concern is the years. I’ll be frank: signing the former Cy Young winner to anything beyond a two-year deal is probably not a good idea. If we can assume this is for a short-term deal (especially one year), I’m on board. I’m not at all concerned about cash and you shouldn’t be either; it’s the Yankees, my dudes, cash isn’t in short supply. The Yankees should be worried about trading limited resources like draft picks or prospects, not cash. Years on a contract are somewhere in the middle.

The former Cy Young winner is 31 and after two injury-dampened seasons in 2016-17, returned to the 200-inning plateau last season. Throwing 200 innings is still quite useful, and 2018 Keuchel was pretty good: 204 IP, 3.84 xFIP. He’s been a workhorse for years, pounding that heavy sinker down in the zone over and over, occasionally mixing in a slider but almost always pushing for the ground ball. He has at times looked downright nasty:

Pretty incredible. So why am I so hesitant for a lengthy commitment? Because once you lift up the hood, there are some troubling signs.

First Troubling Sign: Keuchel’s groundball rate.

Season Groundball rate
2015 61.7%
2016 56.7%
2017 66.8%
2018 53.7%

Some fluctuation there. Keuchel battled a shoulder issue throughout most of 2016 and didn’t tell anyone, for example. It should be noted that the chicanery with the ball itself leading to more homers — Rob Manfred just muttered “no comment” in the middle of a meeting and doesn’t know why — has to play a role here, but that drop from 2017 to 2018 is alarming. However, let’s apply context: Keuchel led all starters in groundball rate last year.

Keuchel leans heavily on his sinker, as you’d expect. Let’s take a look at Second Troubling Sign, brought to us by Statcast’s xwOBA, which uses batted ball data to calculate how effective hitters should have been against his sinker. Read it like you would an on-base percentage:

Season xwOBA
2015 .288
2016 .341
2017 .298
2018 .331

Make no mistake, that 30-ish point leap is a big deal. It’s the difference between pretty good and pretty okay, and for a pitcher on the wrong side of 30 and with a history of injuries …

That brings us to the Third Troubling Sign, his velocity:

Season SNK Velocity
2015 90.1 MPH
2016 89.1 MPH
2017 88.7 MPH
2018 89.1 MPH

For right now, this very second, his sinker velocity is fine. Clearly, he can get outs with it, and one could easily imagine his extended offseason might help him regain a bit of juice. I want to be clear, I’m not worried about the velocity for 2019; I’m worried about the velocity as we enter the new decade. This is where a commitment past the 2020 season begins to worry me because Keuchel just doesn’t have much runway to give on velocity. Even as a lefty armed with a sinker, a certain amount of power is needed to get big leaguers out, especially in the AL East. As the MPHs go down, the demand for Keuchel to be even more precise, even more careful, goes up and up. He loses room for error.

You might say, well, didn’t CC Sabathia make that work? Sure, but don’t romanticize that too much. Sabathia saved his career by developing the cutter — and cemented his rightful place in Cooperstown — but he was a back-end starter who struggled to turn the lineup over. That’s better than being out of the sport, but let’s not make it more than it is.

As Keuchel ages and that arm feels the weight of those innings more and more, the oomph on his sinker is going to fade. It can be managed, but in Yankee Stadium against Mookie Betts probably isn’t the place. Securing Keuchel on a short deal makes plenty of sense; he’ll eat innings, and the improved infield will help him.

Committing to him beyond 2020 is a risk I wouldn’t be inclined to take.

Adam Adkins also writes about baseball at AdkinsOnSports.com. His most recent Ode to a Pitcher breakdown covered Hyun-Jin Ryu.

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