As we’ve navigated through a fairly typical first week of spring training, with some pitchers coming out of the gates slow and having their throwing programs slowed down or paused altogether, fans across baseball are clamoring more and more by the day for their teams to sign free-agent starter Dallas Keuchel. On the surface, it seems like an obvious move for pretty much any club that wants to get better — he’s a former AL Cy Young winner, two-time All-Star, and World Series champion. He’s averaged nearly four wins above replacement (as calculated by Baseball Reference) over the past five seasons, and he was one of just 12 big-league pitchers to eclipse the 200-inning mark last year (he’s done so three times in his seven-season career). He’s had an ERA under 3.00 in three different seasons, and for what it’s worth on the mound, he’s a four-time Gold Glove winner. And that’s not even to mention that whatever teams signs him (well, unless that team is the Yankees) will inevitably be able to make a good chunk of change by selling fake beards in the team store.
As far as many fans and media members are concerned, Keuchel is a guy who could push a team over the top — or in some cases, keep a team from falling down a sinkhole. The Brewers have been linked to Keuchel for months, and considering that Jhoulys Chacin is essentially their only starting pitcher who has even remotely proven himself at the major-league level, he’d seemingly make a ton of sense in Milwaukee. There’s a widespread belief that Keuchel is the missing piece as the Twins look to leapfrog the Indians as favorites for the AL Central title. There’s been plenty of talk about the Phillies signing Keuchel to supplant an inconsistent starter such as Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez, or Jerad Eickhoff, most recently when MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported that Philadelphia will “consider” him once they find out where they stand with Bryce Harper. And as Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez’s throwing program was paused earlier this week due to continued shoulder soreness, plenty of St. Louis fans again called for the Redbirds to sign the bearded left-hander. It’s clear that at least in one section of the baseball world, Keuchel is a highly-coveted commodity.
For some reason or another, though, Keuchel still doesn’t have a team. That’s not to say that clubs don’t believe he’s worthy of a job — it seems most likely that his agent, Scott Boras, is engaging in his long-standing practice of stalling as long as possible in order to get his client the most lucrative deal possible. It probably doesn’t help that Boras and Keuchel likely overestimated the left-hander’s market, with guys like Nathan Eovaldi, J.A. Happ, and even his former rotation mate Charlie Morton seemingly passing him up on teams’ free-agent wish lists at some point during the process.
The problem here — especially for front-office personnel that, to some extent, are putting their jobs on the line with every high-profile signing — is that spring training games are getting underway this weekend and Keuchel isn’t in a camp. Especially with victims of the free-agent freeze-out that occurred last offseason, it’s always felt to me like starting pitchers who have signed late in the offseason or during spring training have ended up paying the price during the regular season. It feels like a logical occurrence since those guys are behind in their throwing programs — even if they’re throwing bullpens at a local high school, that doesn’t equate to live BP against professionals or official spring training games — so in an attempt to find out whether that hypothesis was actually backed up by statistics, I went back and examined the numbers for every starting pitcher who has signed on February 1 (a date that adds some extra wiggle room since most players arrive early at spring facilities these days anyway) or later since 2012, using the signing date data that was available using Baseball Reference and the free-agent trackers from MLB Trade Rumors and Spotrac. Sure enough, they struggle much more often than not — to the point where the phenomenon is even more of an issue than I would’ve thought:
Starting pitchers to sign after Feb. 1 since 2012
|Pitcher||Signing date||ERA||WHIP||Innings||K/9||BB/9||First-half ERA||Second-half ERA|
|Pitcher||Signing date||ERA||WHIP||Innings||K/9||BB/9||First-half ERA||Second-half ERA|
|* = Pitchers who appeared in the minor leagues before making their regular-season debuts|
As you can see from the data, there are basically two types of starting pitchers who have found success in the recent past after signing with a team in February or later: those who have signed in very early February and those who have gone down to the minors to continue getting ramped up after the regular season started. Almost every time that a starter has signed with a team after camp has opened and headed north with the big-league club for Opening Day, he’s struggled immensely.
Now, it is worth pointing out that most starting pitchers around the majors simply aren’t that great, regardless of when they sign. There’s a reason that “The Opener” is spreading like a wildfire around baseball, and teams are so desperate that for starting pitching that, for example, the Nationals gave Patrick Corbin a six-year, $140 million deal after he had one truly great season and Anibal Sanchez two years and $19 million after he had the bounce-backiest of bounce-back seasons. And until a couple years ago, the guys who remained on the free-agent market into the spring were generally just pitchers who had struggled to get offers until teams got to camp and recognized a clear need or suffered an injury to an expected contributor, with maybe a stray money-hungry Boras client or two included in the group each year. With most of the late signees being guys that almost no one wanted, there was clearly a decent expectation that they’d struggle. Obviously, as the free-agent market has transformed, the pool of players available at this time of year has changed, too, and there are now greater expectations for the late signees. Among the pitchers listed here, there were 15 who signed on February 1 or later in 2018, up from five in 2017, four in ’16, five each in ’15, ’14, and ’13, and three in ’12. But the underlying trend remains the same: starting pitchers generally struggle when they sign in February or beyond.
It’s not clear why those extra few minor-league tune-up starts have helped so many late-arriving pitchers to have more success at the major-league level, and it’s especially weird that most guys who sign in the early days of February, before spring training even officially gets underway, still tend to struggle. It’s possible that it just comes down to the fact that for many pitchers, throwing programs have to be so well planned-out and focused that even a minor distraction (other non-free-agency-related examples have included international play in the World Baseball Classic and day-to-day injuries) can derail a pitcher for months on end.
One pitcher whose career does provide some reason for hope — though he’s much more the exception than the rule — is Kyle Lohse, who signed in the middle of spring training twice during the prime of his career, both in 2008 with the Cardinals and in 2013 with the Brewers. He ended up finding a reasonable amount of success both times, posting a 3.78 ERA and 1.30 WHIP over 200 innings with the Cards in ’08, then a 3.35 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over 198.2 frames in ’13. Much like Lohse, Keuchel is a guy who’s relied on the ground ball more than the strikeout for most of his career, so perhaps he’ll be the same type of outlier.
Another is Sanchez in 2018, though his season was so bizarre that it just can’t really be explained at all. After being one of the worst pitchers in the majors for the previous two seasons with the Tigers, Sanchez signed a non-guaranteed major-league deal with the Twins just after camp got underway, was released from that deal on March 11 after putting up a 13.50 ERA in two spring starts, and after signing a minor-league deal with the Braves a few days later, he pitched his way onto the Braves’ major-league roster (though he was assigned to the minors in a paper move on Opening Day, his first regular-season appearance of the season was with the Braves). After putting up a 1.29 ERA over 14 innings in April, he suffered a hamstring strain that cost him more than five weeks of action, but he returned and maintained that same level of dominance, going on to post a 2.83 ERA with a 1.08 WHIP for the season while arguably being the NL East champion Braves’ most consistent starter. Again, it’s really impossible to know what Sanchez did to bounce back in a major way — much less how he managed to succeed after coming into camp late when almost everyone else has failed — but his success was certainly the kind that’d be nice for Keuchel to emulate.
As if the whole late arrival issue isn’t enough of a concern, Keuchel’s inconsistency (which could be described by some as a straight-up decline) is an issue that needs to be examined as well. He had a 3.74 ERA in 2018, nearly a run-and-a-half higher than the 2.48 clip he put up during his 2015 Cy Young campaign. It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise considering that he’s a ground-ball pitcher, but he allowed a majors-worst 211 hits last season, which resulted in 9.3 hits per nine innings, his highest total in that category since 2013. His walks have also gone up from the 2.0 BB/9 he put up in ’15 — he allowed 2.6 per nine in 2016, 2.9 in ’17, and 2.6 again in ’18 — while his 6.7 strikeouts per nine last year were his lowest since 2014. Pitchers outperform peripheral numbers all the time, so those figures shouldn’t be major deterrents as it pertains to assessing Keuchel’s value, but it’s not as if they’re doing him any favors, either.
And as Zach Gifford brilliantly detailed last year, it appears that the Astros have “hacked” spin rate, whether that’s been through ethical or unethical means. It’s difficult to imagine that Keuchel’s spin rate is just going to go down drastically after he leaves Houston — the Astros haven’t really even suffered any high-profile pitching losses to do a case study with since their World Series victory, though Mike Fiers’ spin rate was actually up last year in his first season away from the Minute Maid Park (and it stayed the same during his first year in Houston). With that said, when things go wrong mechanically and Keuchel doesn’t have the same personnel around who have helped Astros pitchers boost their spin rates in the past, perhaps he’ll have some difficulty. It’s certainly a storyline to follow.
He definitely won’t, but would it make sense for Keuchel to simply decide not to sign with a major-league club, maybe go overseas for a year and make some decent money, and then take another stab at the free-agent market next offseason? Perhaps, especially if he only has one-year deals on the table and believes that a lack of preparedness might cause his future value to tank, much like it did for fellow Boras client Greg Holland, who waited until Opening Day to sign a one-year, $14 million contract with the Cardinals last year, rushed to the majors, was ultimately DFA’d in late July after a few horrid months, and ended up signing a one-year, $3.25 million deal with the Diamondbacks this offseason — a massive dip in value over a year, even after he rebuilt his value a bit during a late-season stint with the Nationals. Granted, the market is different for relievers than it is for starters, and Lance Lynn didn’t seem to pay the price for his late arrival to camp and subsequent struggles in 2018, as he signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Rangers in December. That outcome aside, though, the combination of Keuchel’s now-inevitable compressed spring schedule and a possible one-year deal would seem to be incredibly risky.
But realistically, Keuchel’s window is closing as he heads into his age-31 season, so he needs to make as much money from a major-league club as he can, as soon as he can. At this point, his best and most realistic bet seems to be to get into a camp as soon as possible, go through a relatively normal spring throwing progression, and accept an assignment to the minor leagues for a tune-up stint at the start of the season. For what it’s worth, it seems as if some teams are recognizing the value of patience with these types of matters; Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak remarked last week that the team “learned our lesson” from the Holland experience and that they now more fully recognize that “spring training matters.” Seeing as the Phillies started Jake Arrieta in the minors last year, it seems that they already have a pretty good idea of how to handle this type of situation (but even that extra work didn’t prevent him from wearing down significantly after the All-Star break. And though they erred significantly by bringing Lance Lynn north with the big-league club for Opening Day last year, maybe the Twins will approach the situation differently this year if they end up landing Keuchel.
Keuchel’s been great before, he very well could be great again, and it feels gross to (in a way) side with The Man and argue that he shouldn’t be worth that much this year. But the numbers that guys in situations similar to Keuchel have put up after signing late are extremely concerning, and considering the massive impact that starting pitching has on a team’s success — if he gets off to as disastrous a start as guys like Lynn, Cobb, and Vargas did last season, that could easily put a team in jeopardy of losing 8-10 extra games — even signing him to a one-year deal at this point is a move that carries a large amount of risk.