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Evaluating Brad Keller

There are plenty of reasons to be both optimistic and cautious regarding Brad Keller.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Analytics have undeniably taken over the baseball world. Like it or not, analytics are here, and they aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Analytics help teams make more educated decisions in player evaluations and find value in players that other may not see. They also help teams to predict the futures of some players by identifying which statistics matter in terms of correlation with future success.

Brad Keller’s ERA in 2018 sits at 3.04 in 127.1 IP. For a 22-year old kid that was a Rule 5 Draft pick this off-season, Keller has had an absolutely incredible season. No one would deny the success that he has had. But the analytic community will voice concerns about Brad Keller in an MLB rotation moving forward, and they have good points. Let’s take a look at some of them:

  • Among all pitchers in the MLB in 2018, Keller has the 4th worst K/BB ratio. The ERA’s of the three pitchers with a worse K/BB ratio are 5.33, 4.89, and 5.76. That is not great company.
  • Keller’s periphery is okay, but it’s certainly not as good as his 3.04 ERA would suggest. Keller finds himself in the middle of the pack when it comes to BABIP and Soft Contact Percentage (Soft%) meaning he’s not just allowing tons of soft contact to find success. He does however have the 4th best GB% among pitchers with 120 IP, so at least he’s keeping it on the ground.
  • Keller’s lack of a dominant second or even effective third pitch profile him more as a reliever than a starter. It is hard to get by on just a dominant fastball 6-7 innings at a time, and unless he develops his slider into a really good offering, it’s not unreasonable to think he may be more successful in the bullpen moving forward (though that slider has shown improvement).

All of the above are solid reasons to be cautious when penciling Brad Keller into the 2023 starting rotation. Strikeouts are one of the biggest indicators for a starter’s future success and Brad Keller doesn’t strike many batters out. Especially for a guy that throws 95. That’s okay now, especially while his GB% hovers over 50%, but what happens if batters start hitting more fly balls against him?

Here’s my biggest issue with using analytics too heavily to predict the future of Brad Keller: HE IS 22 YEARS OLD. He never threw a single inning at AAA. He skipped AAA when the Royals drafted him in the Rule 5 and probably could’ve even used some more experience at AA before a AAA promotion would’ve been in order in 2018. Yet, here he is, posting incredible numbers as a rookie in the big leagues.

Brad Keller has plenty of room to grow. 22-year old pitchers are by no means a finished product. Jakob Junis didn’t even throw his now famous slider until he was a 23-year old in AA. Keller has time to develop his slider into a dominant pitch, or learn to throw an effective changeup, or maybe a curveball. His command will keep getting better. He’ll learn to put away major league hitters when he gets ahead in the count. Hey, he may even gain a little velocity in the next season or two.

What has me the most optimistic about Brad Keller moving forward is his absurd GB%. Like I mentioned previously, Brad Keller’s GB% was the 4th best rate among all MLB pitchers with 120 innings in 2018. That was before he went out and threw seven innings of one-run baseball in which he induced 13 ground ball outs to just the one fly out (six strikeouts on the ledger as well).

In addition to the ridiculous amount of ground balls, Keller’s K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings pitched) has continued to get better throughout the season. His K/9 is actually higher as a starter than it was during his time as a reliever, and sits at a much improved 7.36 since his start on August 2nd (compared to 5.33 before August 2nd). He’s continued to improve all season and has an ERA of 2.47 since August 2nd, compared to an ERA of 3.43 before August 2nd.

Hopefully this last month-plus for Keller can continue to be his norm. The increased strikeout rate is super encouraging and his ERA has continued to reflect these improvements. Keller got off to a bit of a slow start this season as far as the strikeouts go, but again, you’ll have to forgive the Rule 5 pick for not being an All-Star right away.

The season long analytics for Keller can be tricky. They aren’t super impressive, but they have gotten progressively better every time he takes the mound. The kid is still just 22 and has a couple of seasons to figure out the big leagues before the Royals will be in a place to compete for the playoffs, so time is definitely on his side. Keller will definitely have some adjustments that he’ll need to make if he wants to continue to have this level of success, but I’ve seen nothing to make me believe he can’t do it. I am really excited for the future of Brad Keller.