The Royals announced yesterday that Brad Keller is being shut down for the year, so I thought it was time to go back and reflect on his season and discuss what went right, what went wrong and how he stacked up against both fan expectations and his peers. Coming off of what can only be called a surprising breakout season in 2018 in which Keller won the Royals Pitcher of the Year award, expectations were mixed for the 2019 season. I myself am guilty of placing lofty expectations on Keller, as evidenced by one of my first pieces written where I discussed extending him (among others) after this season. Others were more guarded, pointing out his high walk rate and lack of a true “put-away” pitch as indicators he might struggle.
Keller started the season with a bang, pitching 30 2⁄3 innings in his first five starts (a tour of the division, facing Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago again) with a 2.64 ERA, an 8.5 K/9. Throughout the season, he maintained his heavy ground ball rate at 50%, putting him 14th out of the 68 qualified pitchers this season. Impressively, his HR/FB rate of 10.2 is 10th of 68. He posted 2.2 fWAR (2.4 bWAR) over 28 starts, good for 44th out of 68. He also increased his strikeout rate from 2018 (6.16) by nearly half a strikeout-per-nine, ending with a 6.64 K/9.
His record of 7-14 (team record of 9-19), is a bit deceiving. While he leads the league in losses, he averaged just 3.05 runs of support per game, which is fourth-worst among pitchers with 20 or more starts*. The average run support for these pitchers was 4.95, almost two full runs higher. If the Royals had scored just four runs in each of his losing starts, they would have added six more wins (and one tie) to their record.
*source oddsshark.com, which also lists his support as 3.07 instead of 3.05.
There were some underlying issues even in his first five good starts, evidenced by his nearly 5.5 BB/9 over that stretch. His BB/9 fell to 3.81, but that’s still 64th worst out of 68 qualified starters and a sizable increase from 2018 (3.21). His K/9 was 6.64, good for only 61st out of 68. His ERA of 4.19 is 43rd, FIP was 47th and xFIP of 4.93 is 61st. All three of these are significant steps back from his 2018 season (3.08/3.55/4.26).
His whiff rates are extremely low for all of his pitches (not including the change up, which he threw so rarely I don’t want to take any of the data off of it). For starters who threw a minimum of 2000 pitches this season, his whiff rate of 19.94% is 72nd out of 81. His four-seamer sits 67th of 106 pitchers, his sinker is 33rd out of 40 pitchers and his slider sits 28th out of 34 pitchers.*
*all examples set with a 500 pitch minimum.
With mixed expectations entering this season coupled with mixed results, it’s hard to draw a firm conclusion. On the one hand, Keller did reach a career high in innings pitched at 165 1⁄3. He posted 2.2 fWAR (2.4 bWAR) which is considered above-average production for a major league player. On the other his whiff rates and his ERA/FIP/xFIP are all near the bottom of the league.
Given that he is still just 24, and is under club control for four more years, there is still room for improvement. He increased his innings pitched by 25 without sustaining serious injury, while maintaining back-of-the-rotation numbers. Overall, as a Rule 5 draft pick and who was not really expected to contribute at the Major League level last year, I lean more towards labeling it a success.
What do you think?