Why Keuchel is a perfect fit for Reds
Lefty's penchant for ground balls and weak contact attractive for Cincy
The Brewers shook up the National League Central by dethroning the Cubs as division champions last season, but in 2019, a club that may make a surprising move up the Central standings is none other than the Reds.
Cincinnati has finished in last place in each of the last four seasons, and hasn't been to the postseason since '13. But contention may be within grasp if the right moves are made this offseason. Could one of them involve free-agent left-hander Dallas Keuchel?
• The latest Keuchel free-agent rumors
It may seem an odd fit on the surface, but Keuchel in a Reds uniform makes a lot of sense. With Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams and general manager Nick Krall having said they have money to spend this winter, and that one of the areas they're focusing on is starting pitching, Keuchel fits the bill.
Cincinnati has already made one significant addition to the rotation, acquiring Tanner Roark from the Nationals for reliever Tanner Rainey during the Winter Meetings. We can look to that move for clues as to what the Reds might do next. In acquiring Roark, they got a ground-ball pitcher with a relatively low barrel rate, per Statcast™.
Those two characteristics are particularly important at hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park, which had a home run park factor of 108 in each of the past three seasons, per FanGraphs. To put that into context, it was tied with Miller Park for third-highest home run park factor in the NL last season, behind only Citizens Bank Park (111) and Coors Field (110).
Highest ground-ball rate, low barrel rate
Keuchel had the highest ground-ball rate of all qualified starting pitchers last season, at 53.7 percent, and his 58.0 percent ground-ball rate over the past three seasons is fourth among qualified starters over that span. His career high was 66.8 percent in '17. As for quality of contact, Keuchel's barrel rate of 4.5 percent was eighth-best among pitchers that yielded at least 400 batted balls (91 pitchers) last season.
Low HR/9 in an era of slugging
A byproduct of Keuchel's penchant for ground balls and weak contact is the low rate at which he's surrendered home runs in what has been a prodigious era for sluggers. In '18, his home runs per nine innings rate was 0.79, ninth-best among qualified starters. And in the season prior it was 0.93. Out of all balls hit in the air off Keuchel last season, just 18.5 percent were hard-hit according to Statcast™, 10th-lowest among pitchers that induced at least 400 batted balls (91 pitchers) in '18.
By contrast, Cincinnati's starting staff had a HR/9 rate of 1.62 last season, 29th in the Majors and ahead of only the Orioles (1.72). The staff's hard-hit rate on balls in the air was a 22nd-ranked (22.8 percent).
A perfect fit in Cincy?
Since Keuchel's Cy Young campaign in '15, he's had mixed results and a pair of seasons cut short by injury. He posted a 4.55 ERA over 26 starts in '16, but bounced back in '17 with a 2.90 ERA over 23 starts. He was sidelined for significant periods in both seasons due to shoulder and neck issues. Last season, his ERA rose to 3.74, more in line with his '17 FIP of 3.79, though he did make a career-high 34 starts.
Nevertheless, for a club looking to rein in all the baseballs leaving the ballpark, the Reds might not find anyone better-suited for the job than Keuchel. And if Cincinnati, currently projected by FanGraphs to win 76 games in '19, takes things further, perhaps bolstering its bullpen and adding to an already strong lineup, the offseason may just push the Reds into Wild Card contention.
The Reds are rumored to be one of the clubs pursuing Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, whom Miami has made available for trade. Realmuto was the best-hitting catcher in baseball last season, slashing .277/.340/.484 with 21 homers in 125 games. And that's not to mention his baserunning -- his average Sprint Speed in '18 was 28.6, well above the MLB average of 27.0.
Cincinnati has also reportedly shown interest in free-agent center fielder A.J. Pollock after non-tendering Billy Hamilton. Pollock had a spectacular two months at the plate to open last season before injury derailed him. Through May 14, he hit .293/.349/.620 with 11 homers in 40 games. He hit just .236/.297/.407 with 10 homers after returning in July.
If Realmuto and/or Pollock were to join a group already consisting of perennial Most Valuable Player candidate Joey Votto and sluggers Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett, Scott Schebler and Jesse Winker, it would be a very formidable lineup.
The Reds continue to be one of the most intriguing teams this offseason, given how much they could improve their lot in the NL Central. Only time will tell what comes next.