Welcome! If you are reading this shortly after it is posted, you are probably a fantasy baseball nut like me, thinking ahead to ranking and evaluating players for the 2017 season, when the real baseball postseason is only half over. Even if you are reading this in March as draft preparation, that’s ok. In fact, it is even encouraged!
Today’s target is a former Cy Young award winner that took a big step back in 2016, disappointing fantasy owners everywhere. Now, as a command and ground ball guy throwing 89-mph with no track record of high strikeouts, he was likely for some regression, but it seemed to hit especially hard. I’m going to give you lots of tables and graphs to think about here, so I hope it all makes sense. We’re going to dive deep into Keuchel’s 2016 to see what we might expect for 2017.
You can see how 2016 was a big drop off from 2015 in every way. He did manage to keep some of the walk and strikeout gains from 2015 compared to his earlier years, though. His xFIP was still very respectable and his ground ball rate still above league average. However, he was worse than his career average in both stats. If his ERA had matched his xFIP, his owners would have been decently happy. On to Table 2!
Well, we can tell he was a little unlucky with home runs, but not out of line with his previous seasons. With his low velocity, he will probably carry a higher-than-league-average rate. So, we can’t blame that. There are four very telling stats in this table. His fastball velocity fell 1.3 mph, which is significant when you are already down that low. He also went from very lucky with stranded baserunners (LOB%) in 2015 to very unlucky in 2016. An 11% swing in LOB% in one year is pretty big and certainly hurts one’s ERA. Third, his swinging strike rate went from comfortably above average to just about league average. That’s not helping him strand runners, either. Finally, look at the O-swing%. Keuchel did most of his damage in 2015 by getting hitters to swing at pitches out of the zone or very low in the zone, generating whiffs or ground balls. Hitters were not swinging at those pitches as much against him in 2016. It might be related to how he pitched to them.
The first heat map is for 2015 and the second for 2016. You can see that he was forced by hitters (or perhaps he chose to?) to throw more in the zone. Look at the three squares just to the left of the zone in the bottom corner. He drastically reduced his pitches there, likely because hitters weren’t swinging. In general, there are a lot more pink squares in the zone in 2016, which means hitters were getting more pitches they could do damage on. Keuchel needs to work outside the zone more to have success.
Let’s take a look at his individual pitches while we’re at it.
|2015 SwStr%||2016 SwStr%||2015 GB%||2016 GB%|
You can see his swinging strike rate got cut in half on his bread-and-butter pitch, the two-seam. He throws that almost half the time. His slider, cutter, and change-up stayed about the same, while his four-seam saw an up-tick, but he doesn’t throw it much. What hurt him most were the drops in ground ball rates, especially that two-seam. That’s a brutal drop and a big reason for his struggles.
Let’s take a look at some charts from Brooks Baseball, shall we?
Here’s his pitch usage. His slider use is up, along with his cutter, but he kind of abandoned his change-up. His change is good at generating swinging strikes and he used it about 15% of the time in 2015. I don’t know why he moved away from it. His slider is good, but his cutter isn’t as good as his change, so the move makes no sense to me.
How about this chart?
Another piece of evidence. His velocity on all pitches took a dive. That certainly isn’t helpful. Only by the end of the season was he even close to his 2015 velocities.
Here we see his horizontal pitch movement. Yet again, it was worse across the board than 2015.
This is the last one, I promise. His vertical movement didn’t suffer as much as his horizontal movement, but it did drop, especially against LHB.
Ok, let’s summarize. Keuchel’s bad 2016 was the result of: a drop in velocity on all pitches, more pitches in the zone, fewer changeups, bad luck with stranded baserunners, fewer whiffs, and less movement on his pitches. Those last two are almost certainly related to a drop in velocity. Perhaps all of it can be blamed on that.
The formula for success for Keuchel in 2017: throw more changeups, get your average fastball velocity in the 89+ mph range, throw in the zone less, and expect positive regression in LOB%. Easy right?
We may have a reason for his velocity drop: a left shoulder injury. He ended the year with left shoulder inflammation after his August 27 start. Now, maybe he wasn’t hurting earlier in the season, but players are notorious for hiding injuries and trying to play through them, so it wouldn’t shock me if he was. Either way, I will be watching him carefully this spring to see where his velocity is at.
Keep an eye on those formula for success items in his first few starts to see what kind of year it will be. Given all of this, I think 2017 will be a better year than 2016, but no Cy Young season, either. I predict an ERA around 3.4, with a 22% K%, a 6% walk rate, and a 1.2 WHIP. That is worth owning in all leagues, but not worth an ace-level price on draft day.