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Evaluating and Extending Brad Keller

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What can Brad Keller expect to get in a contract extension right now and should the Royals even offer it?

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals have a pitcher who is about to enter his age-25 season who has pitched three full seasons and has been above average (at least by ERA) in all three of them. He’s actually been at least 40 percent above league average in that stat in two of the three. He also has given up the fewest homers in baseball since his debut among pitchers with at least 300 innings and the fewest home runs per nine innings, so it’s not really a fluke of him having fewer innings than most. And among that group, he has the third highest ground ball rate. Oh and he’s averaged six innings per start since he was stretched out enough as a starter in his rookie year to throw 100 pitches.

The Royals also have a pitcher who is about to enter his age-25 season who has the fifth lowest strikeout rate per nine innings of any pitchers who have thrown at least 300 innings since he debuted. His strikeout percentage ranks him as sixth worst, so there’s that. He’s walked the 11th most per nine innings of that group. His walk percentage is ninth worst, so...there’s that. His xFIP, which normalizes for home runs is the 15th highest out of all those pitchers.

I know that nobody has figured out that both the above paragraphs describe Brad Keller. Wow, I really tricked you guys!

Keller is the perfect example of finding the line between process and results. I’m all about the process, knowing that a good process will lead to better results in the long-term. Sure, the sacrifice bunt the Royals put down in the second game of the season in the tenth inning led to them scoring a run and that run holding up, but I personally wouldn’t do that again. Just like I have a hard time wrapping my head around a pitcher not missing bats and missing the strike zone as much as Keller actually being good.

But here’s the thing. At some point, the sample gets big enough that you start to consider certain things as the outlier. At 360 innings, I’m honestly not sure if Keller is completely there yet, but I think he’s close enough that we have to start talking about him differently. I think back to the conversation around Matt Cain. He wasn’t nearly as extreme as Keller early in his career as he struck out a few more and walked a few less, but he was a guy who the advanced stats just didn’t think could keep it up. His BABIP allowed was always so low. Brandon Webb was another guy who just seemed like he couldn’t keep it up. He had better control than Keller, but still didn’t miss many bats.

No, I’m not saying Keller is Cain or Webb. Webb won a Cy Young and Cain got votes in three separate seasons. But I am saying some guys are just different. What Keller does exceptionally well is worth lauding in this era of baseball. He stops opponents from hitting the ball out of the ballpark. It’s actually more than that. He stops opponents from hitting much more than singles against him. That plays. His .101 career ISO allowed is equal to that of Drew Butera in 2018 or close to Alex Gordon in 2020. The point is that while he doesn’t do things we traditionally see as markers of success, he still is successful.

That’s a long way to get to the real point of his and that’s looking at what a long-term extension for Keller would look like for the Royals. As a pitcher about to enter arbitration for the first time, this is a perfect time to lock up a guy who probably isn’t a true star. When I think about potential contract extensions, I like to think about logical progressions first and then get into some comps out there for similar enough players who have signed these extensions. The first thing I do is look at the arbitration estimates, which MLB Trade Rumors so kindly provided last week. They have him projected at $4.3 million, so that’s a good starting point.

We’ll call that $4 million for some round numbers and some that he gives up now for long term security, and let’s look at a contract in the range of six years. That takes him through his age-30 season, which seems just about perfect for the Royals.

Initial Keller Estimate

Year Salary
Year Salary
2021 $4 million
2022 $7 million
2023 $11 million
2024 (first FA year) $16 million
2025 $16 million
2026 $16 million

That’s a six-year deal for $70 million. Which might be a little steeper than the Royals would like and probably steeper than I would like, but if he’s giving away his ability to negotiate in arbitration as a pitcher who has 360 innings with a 131 ERA+, I think they might have to go a little steep. This is an example of them waiting a year too long in hindsight, though I can’t blame them for waiting given the decline we saw in 2019 from him. You might be able to throw an option on the end for something like $20 million with a $2 million buyout to get it to 6/72, but that actually looks about right on the surface to me.

I hate the idea of valuing wins by WAR because I think it misses a lot of the point, but he’s been worth 6.1 fWAR and 8.3 bWAR in his career through three seasons. That’s been “worth” between about $50 million and $70 million already, so from a crude value perspective, yeah, that makes some sense.

Let’s take a look at some pitchers who have signed extensions in recent years to see if I’m way off:

Comparable Previous Extensions

Pitcher Year Signed Total Years Total Dollars
Pitcher Year Signed Total Years Total Dollars
Danny Duffy 2017 5 $65 million
Carlos Martinez 2017 5 $51 million
Blake Snell 2019 5 $50 million
Aaron Nola 2019 4 $45 million
German Marquez 2019 5 $43 million
Luis Severino 2019 4 $40 million
Jose Quintana 2014 5 $26.5 million

There are a few deals that can give us some ideas for Keller. A couple don’t really make sense. Duffy’s deal was signed with a year before free agency. Marquez signed his the year before he was eligible for arbitration. But the rest could work. The one thing I’m seeing in all of these is that six years is obviously longer than any of them. Maybe we cut back the deal to five years with a sixth year option. Take off that $16 million in 2026 and we’re looking at a five year deal for $54 million. Now we’re pretty well in line with what these comps have been.

Martinez, to me, is a really interesting one as well. He had a great start to his career through 2016, throwing almost 500 innings in 68 starts and 72 relief appearances. He did strike out more hitters and did a great job of limiting home runs. He was actually projected by MLBTR to make $5.3 million in his first year of arbitration. So maybe I’m a little high on my initial Keller thoughts on a contract.

I’m also actually intrigued by the German Marquez deal. On back of the baseball card numbers, he wasn’t as good as Keller with an ERA more than half a point higher and an ERA+ of 118 compared to Keller’s 131, but he struck out a ton more hitters and walked fewer. Of course, he was also signed, as mentioned before, a year before hitting arbitration, so his contract covered a pre-arb year and only one year of free agency. Add on a second year and he probably gets close to $60 million in the three arbitration years and two free agent years of his deal.

See? It’s really difficult to figure out exactly what to expect from a Keller contract because he’s just so...different. But I think I’m ready to get out there with an idea that’s actually not far off from my initial thoughts.

Revised Keller Estimate

Year Salary
Year Salary
2021 $4 million
2022 $7 million
2023 $10 mllion
2024 (first FA year) $13 million
2025 $16 million
2026 (option) $18 million ($2 million buyout)

We’re now at five years to match the other contracts and $52 million guaranteed with a chance to go six years and $68 million. Does this deal make sense for the Royals? I think it does. Keller has proven he can pitch in the big leagues. His floor seems to be high enough that even if he’s working as a fourth or fifth starter, he’s reasonable in cost. There’s a risk on the back end if he breaks down as the Royals young core of pitchers will all be starting to reach arbitration at the time that his contract becomes a lot closer to a big boy deal, but that’s a relatively okay risk as the Royals have shown a willingness to move guys to the bullpen even on high dollar deals, and I think it’s fair to say that Keller could be a huge bullpen weapon, even at a bit of a bloated salary. And from a value standpoint, he’d really need to be worth about 5.5 wins over five years to make it worth the Royals while if you do want to look at it from that perspective.

All in all, the value seems right. Whether they should do it is another question with all those arms coming through the pipeline. You really can never have too much pitching and the Royals have a guy who has shown he can not only succeed in the big leagues but thrive and he’s still quite young. In my opinion, I’d endorse that deal, but I can also see both ways.

Poll

Would you sign Brad Keller to a 5 year, $52 million extension?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    Hell yes, I’d give him more even
    (52 votes)
  • 74%
    Yep, that seems about right
    (290 votes)
  • 4%
    No way, he’s not worth close to that
    (18 votes)
  • 7%
    Nah, why spend money when there’s a million arms on the way?
    (31 votes)
391 votes total Vote Now