Three Cuts: How high should expectations be set for Dallas Keuchel?
Ronald Acuña Jr.'s ownership stake in the Miami Marlins rescued a potentially disappointing road trip against two underwhelming opponents on Sunday, closing the gap in the National League East race back to one game. In a division race where every game counts, the difference between a 3-3 road trip and a 4-2 road trip against two sub-.500 teams is important.
The extra-inning victory sealed Atlanta’s third win while trailing after eight innings this season and, by some projections, they could be considered NL East favorites after the signing of free-agent starter Dallas Keuchel and the unfortunate news that Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. So just how good can Keuchel be for the Braves’ starting rotation?
Setting realistic expectations for a Cy Young winner and World Series champion
Teams do not simply throw away $13 million — as evidenced by the New York Yankees reportedly being out-bid by a couple million for Keuchel’s services — and general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ front office has not been one to freely part ways with cash. Offseason splash signing Josh Donaldson clearly made the roster better. Dallas Keuchel clearly makes the roster better. There’s a certain amount of risk built into any contract, and the Braves’ two largest free-agent additions are no different, particularly with Keuchel’s time off from competitive baseball due to MLB’s broken qualifying offer system, but he’s good.
At 31 years old, he’s got a Cy Young Award in his trophy case and a World Series ring on his finger. He’s won four Gold Gloves and made two All-Star appearances. He’s been the game’s premier ground-ball starting pitcher since his breakout 2014 season. During his five-year prime with the Houston Astros, his 17.1 FanGraphs wins above replacement and 3.28 ERA were both top-20 marks among qualified starters.
Even if the former seventh-round pick is no longer able to reach his 2015 Cy Young heights, he still would’ve graded out as the second-best pitcher (3.3 fWAR) on the Braves’ roster last season behind only All-Star Mike Foltynewicz. Put another way: Only eight Atlanta pitchers have reached a 3-WAR season this decade and the last Braves starter to post at least three consecutive 2-WAR seasons was John Smoltz from 2005 to 2007. Dallas Keuchel has reached that 2-WAR mark each of the past five campaigns.
“He checks all the boxes that you’re looking for in a starting pitcher,” former Astros teammate and Braves veteran catcher Brian McCann said of Keuchel on Friday night. “His sinker is one of those sinkers that changes planes. He’s got a great cutter. And he can throw the ball wherever he wants whenever he wants to. He’s well-prepared. You’re going to see a lot of ground balls.”
Even applying an aging curve to Keuchel’s age-31 season projections would leave him safely within upgrade territory for Atlanta, but his time away from major-league baseball throws a wrench into this equation. No spring training. No competitive games since his ALCS start against Boston on Oct. 16. Keuchel has been training at Scott Boras’ facility in Southern California, throwing every five days primarily against college-aged or independent-league bats, and he showed up at Triple-A Gwinnett’s facility in good physical condition.
“I’m physically as ready as I’ve been in quite a while,” said Keuchel, who is expecting to make one or two starts for Atlanta minor-league affiliates before being called up no earlier than June 17. The veteran southpaw is already stretched out to 90-100 pitches. “It’s a great feeling for me personally, but also a lot of excitement.”
Assuming good health, Keuchel should be able to make 15-17 regular-season starts for Atlanta this season. Over the past three seasons, here are his averages:
So you’re looking at a very good starter who will work deep into games while relying on keeping the ball on the ground. Keuchel has never missed many bats, partially by design because he wants to create weak contact, but he also doesn’t issue many free passes. His five-pitch arsenal also helps to keep hitters from locking in on his sinker.
Take those averages at face value and apply an (overly) aggressive 10 percent decline to his league-adjusted stats due to age and time away from competitive baseball. Maybe not absolute worst-case scenario, but probably close to the floor of what Keuchel provides Atlanta as he bets on himself before reentering 2020 free agency. That’s still a league average starter (99 FIP-, 102 ERA-) who can eat up innings and keep the ball on the ground for a top-tier infield defense.
Steamer’s rest-of-season projections are bullish on Keuchel: 3.63 ERA and 3.59 FIP over the course of 16 starts and 98 innings. That’d be a two-win player and Keuchel’s best production since taking home the Cy Young award. Given Keuchel’s strengths — just think of how Mike Soroka is utilizing his defense this season — thinking big on what he could bring to Atlanta is not out of bounds.
There’s always risk. But this is high-floor risk.
Spending top-10 picks on catchers shows high hit rate
Tyler Houston and Mike Kelly, two of the most intriguing “what-if” draft picks in Atlanta Braves history, were two notable reference points to the organization’s selection of Baylor catcher Shea Langeliers in the 2019 draft. Langeliers, the top defensive catcher in his draft class, is the first catcher the Braves have selected in the first round since Houston (1989) and he’s the first college position drafted in the first round by Atlanta since Kelly (1991).
Atlanta built parts of its mid-1990s powerhouse on the foundation of six consecutive top-six draft picks from 1986 to 1991.
The picks produced one future Hall of Famer with a prep shortstop named Chipper Jones and two very good major-league pitchers in Steve Avery and Kent Mercker. Selecting Derek Lilliquist at No. 6 overall in 1987 was a mistake in hindsight — especially considering Craig Biggio, Kevin Appier and Travis Fryman appear on the draft board after the selection — but the Houston and Kelly picks, both at No. 2 overall in their respective drafts sandwiched around Chipper’s selection, loom largest.
The two played 160 total games for the Braves; they were eventually traded in separate deals for the combined return of Ray King, Chad Fox and Ismael Villegas. The team missed on first-round talents Frank Thomas, Manny Ramirez, Shawn Green, Chuck Knoblauch, Cliff Floyd, Mo Vaughn and Charles Johnson in the 1989 and 1991 drafts.
Similar retrospectives will play out with the draft history of Atlanta’s latest rebuild.
The Braves have held nine first-round picks since 2015. The baseball industry is years away from properly judging even the ’15 class, but the selections of Mike Soroka (28th overall) and Austin Riley (41st overall) already look like foundational pieces for a contender and two of the best picks in the draft. The remaining group of pitchers — Kolby Allard, Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz and Kyle Wright — have landed on various top-100 prospect lists but have yet to build up any significant major-league playing time to make any sort of sweeping judgments. After not signing No. 8 overall pick Carter Stewart in 2018, Langeliers and Texas A&M shortstop Braden Shewmake are the latest additions to this group and, if all goes according to plan, the Baylor standout could be the final top-10 pick the franchise makes for the foreseeable future.
On draft night, Braves vice president of scouting Dana Brown pointed to the relative safety of the pick and it’s higher probability yielding than, say, a high-school arm, a positional weakness in the ’19 class: “We think we can get him here quick to the big leagues. We think he’s that type of player. It’s elite defense. … Plus-plus arm. Plus-plus defense. High IQ. Big-time makeup. High-energy type player. Just a good package for the franchise.”
If recent draft history provides any lessons, spending top-10 picks on catchers is a safe route. There have been 41 catchers selected in the first round since 2000; Langeliers and 2019 No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman became the 12th and 13th catchers taken within the first 10 picks over that span. Here’s the list:
The simple breakdown? Two Hall of Fame-caliber players in Mauer and Posey, four good major-league players (Wieters, Castro, Zunino, Schwarber), three busts and four good-to-great prospects drafted since 2016.
In total, you’re looking at 154.7 FanGraphs wins above replacement in 6,151 career games. MVP-level production from Mauer and Posey certainly skew the numbers due to the number of games played, but that averages out to 4 WAR per 162 games.
Even if the hitting profile Langeliers started to flash since tweaking his swing in the Cape Cod League after his freshman year never fully pans out, the defensive profile should give him a high probability of making a major-league roster at least as a platoon option, which seems to be the direction most teams are going at the sport's most physically taxing position anyways.
After years of risk tolerance and plenty of draft hits, Atlanta went with a much safer route in 2019, one that has paid off more times than not over the past two decades.
Copyright The Associated Press. All rights reserved.AP
Matt Joyce should consider giving Matt Joyce more playing time
Nick Markakis has not encountered the best of luck as he’s struggled to follow up on his first career All-Star season. He’s produced better quality and amount of contact than his league average numbers (.328 wOBA, 101 wRC+) would suggest, but that doesn’t change the fact that his production has fallen off from his fast start:
March/April: 130 wRC+
May: 85 wRC+
June: 40 wRC+
Atlanta promised to utilize its deeper bench and give its everyday starters more rest in 2019, especially for veterans like Markakis whose production declined in the second half last season, and that’s been the case.
Markakis was held out of the starting lineup for the fifth time this season on Sunday — and the third time in the past 15 games — though he did enter the game to draw a walk as a pinch-hitter. In his place, productive bench option Matt Joyce kept hitting. The 34-year-old lefty bat added three hits, including two doubles, to his 2019 totals and he’s now hitting 50 percent above league average in 68 plate appearances.
There’s reason to believe Markakis’ steady presence in the Braves’ lineup will pick up from hitting 24 percent below league average since May 1, but if Joyce is going to keep providing pop (.534 slugging) it’s going to be more and more unlikely that Markakis goes for extended stretches without seeing an off day.