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Trade Talk

Finding the best backstop matches for Keuchel

Clubs with great framing catchers are ideal fits for top FA starter
MLB.com @_dadler

Dallas Keuchel, the last front-end starting pitcher still available on the free-agent market, isn't much like his peers who have already signed. Keuchel doesn't throw 100 mph like Nathan Eovaldi, or have one wipeout pitch like Patrick Corbin's slider, or have the electric movement on his stuff like former teammate Charlie Morton.

What Keuchel has is impeccable command. The veteran left-hander throws five pitches -- a four-seamer, sinker, cutter, slider and changeup -- and none of them see the heart of the strike zone.

Dallas Keuchel, the last front-end starting pitcher still available on the free-agent market, isn't much like his peers who have already signed. Keuchel doesn't throw 100 mph like Nathan Eovaldi, or have one wipeout pitch like Patrick Corbin's slider, or have the electric movement on his stuff like former teammate Charlie Morton.

What Keuchel has is impeccable command. The veteran left-hander throws five pitches -- a four-seamer, sinker, cutter, slider and changeup -- and none of them see the heart of the strike zone.

Keuchel is one of the best in baseball at painting the edges and the corners. Statcast™ classifies "edge" pitches as those within a baseball's width of the border of the strike zone. In 2018, 46 percent of the pitches Keuchel threw were to the edges -- the seventh-highest rate among regular starting pitchers. And only Keuchel's teammate, Justin Verlander, threw more total pitches to the edges.

Most pitches thrown to edges of strike zone, 2018
1. Justin Verlander: 1,557
2. Dallas Keuchel: 1,524
3. Max Scherzer: 1,456
4. Zack Greinke: 1,455
5. Aaron Nola: 1,451

How does this play into Keuchel's free agency? Well, all that pitching to the edges makes one thing extra important: Keuchel's catcher. Keuchel probably wants to pitch in a place where his catcher can steal strikes when he paints.

Throwing to the edges of the zone can be a coin flip. Last season, those borderline pitches were called strikes 47.3 percent of the time across MLB. (Keuchel got called strikes at slightly above the league-average rate, 48.6 percent.) But catchers who are skilled at pitch framing can get called strikes much more often -- and it just so happens that some of those catchers play for teams who have been connected to Keuchel this offseason.

So let's play matchmaker for Keuchel and find him a battery-mate.

NOT A GOOD FIT

Reds: Tucker Barnhart 

The Reds want to upgrade their starting rotation this offseason, and Keuchel might even be their preferred free-agent target because of how his ground-ball ability might play at hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park. But Cincinnati's starting catcher is not a good pitch framer. Barnhart got called strikes on just 43.4 percent of borderline pitches taken last season, fourth-worst among regular catchers. And by Baseball Prospectus' catcher metrics, he was worth -11.5 Framing Runs, third-worst in MLB.

MAYBE YES, MAYBE NO

Astros: Max Stassi / Robinson Chirinos
A Keuchel-Astros reunion would look great from a framing perspective if Stassi were the clear-cut starting catcher, but Houston's acquisition of Chirinos throws a damper on the match. Stassi was one of MLB's best framers last season, while Chirinos was one of the worst.

Stassi in 2018
+13.9 Framing Runs (2nd-best in MLB)
51.9 percent called strikes on edge (2nd-best in MLB)

Chirinos in 2018
-11.2 Framing Runs (4th-worst in MLB)
44.9 percent called strikes on edge (T-8th-worst in MLB)

THE BEST FITS

Braves: Tyler Flowers
While the Braves did add catching depth by bringing back Brian McCann, whose framing has declined in recent seasons (although he had very good numbers as recently as 2016), Flowers consistently ranks among the top framing catchers, and Atlanta kept him over Kurt Suzuki, who left in free agency for the Nationals. The Braves' offseason priorities are upgrading the outfield and rotation, so Keuchel would fit perfectly if it's at the right price. Flowers is one of the best backstops for a pitcher like him to throw to.

Flowers' Framing Runs by season
Since joining Braves in 2016
2016: +13.3 (6th in MLB)
2017: +32.0 (1st in MLB)
2018: +13.7 (3rd in MLB)

Flowers' called strike percentage on edge pitches
Since joining Braves in 2016
2016: 50.5 percent (5th in MLB)
2017: 53.9 percent (1st in MLB)
2018: 51.0 percent (6th in MLB)
Overall: 51.9 percent (1st in MLB)

Phillies: Jorge Alfaro
Right now the Phillies' focus seems to be on landing Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, but after the those situations are resolved, they're expected to turn their attention toward other top free agents, and recent reports have suggested that Keuchel would be on their list. If Keuchel signed with Philadelphia, he'd be throwing to a promising young defensive catcher in Alfaro.

Video: Phillies want to sign Harper, Keuchel and Kimbrel

Alfaro is more known for his rocket arm behind the plate (the strongest in baseball last season), but he also excelled as a pitch framer in his first extended Major League action in 2018. Alfaro's +12.3 Framing Runs ranked fifth-best among catchers, and he just snuck into the Top 10 in called strike rate on the edges, at 50.6 percent.

Brewers: Yasmani Grandal
Grandal combines consistently elite pitch framing with a consistent presence behind the plate. (Over the past four seasons with the Dodgers, he caught 474 games, fourth-most in MLB behind Yadier Molina, J.T. Realmuto and Salvador Perez.) That combination makes him highly valuable to a pitching staff, and the National League Central champs certainly have openings. Keuchel might be looking for a bigger deal than they want to give out, but they've at least shown interest in him.

Video: Grandal explains reasoning for short-team deal

And it's a perfect baseball fit, especially now that Milwaukee has landed Grandal. Here's how Grandal's framing numbers from his Dodgers tenure break down.

Grandal's Framing Runs, 2015-18
2015: +26.2 (1st in MLB)
2016: +28.0 (2nd in MLB)
2017: +26.2 (4th in MLB)
2018: +15.7 (1st in MLB)

Grandal's called strike percentage on edge pitches, 2015-18
2015:
52.3 percent (T-1st in MLB)
2016: 53.1 percent (2nd in MLB)
2017: 50.3 percent (3rd in MLB)
2018: 50.9 percent (T-7th in MLB)
Overall: 51.6 percent (2nd in MLB)

A playoff contender with a need for starting pitching and an everyday top-tier framing catcher already on the roster? That sounds like an ideal situation for a pitcher like Keuchel.

David Adler is a reporter and researcher for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.

Dallas Keuchel