Brad Keller and the Search for a Guy Like Him
He may be a unicorn.
The Royals have a crop of young pitching that is the envy of the majority of the league. Last season, we saw a few of those pitchers and there was a lot of success to be found among them. And somehow, Brad Keller continued to fly under the radar even though he was the best starter on the staff and doesn’t turn 26 until July of the upcoming season. With three years of service time, Keller has entered into the arbitration process, which leads to questions about an extension for him moving forward. In fact, I wrote about what an extension might look like for him. But now I’m wondering if there’s precedent for a pitcher like Keller and if we can learn anything from those who came before them.
If you’re reading this, you already know, but I’m going to pretend someone random stumbled onto this site and doesn’t know who Keller is for a second. In Keller, the Royals have a pitcher who doesn’t really fit into what we see from most pitchers in 2021. He does throw pretty hard, so that fits, but he doesn’t strike many hitters out and unless his 2020 was the start of something better with control, he walks a few too many hitters for a guy who doesn’t strike many hitters out. But what he does exceptionally well is that he keeps the ball in the park.
In 360.1 innings, he’s given up 24 home runs. Among pitchers with at least 350 innings since his debut, nobody has given up fewer. The next closest is Noah Syndergaard who has given up 33 in 352 innings. Lower than minimum to 250 innings and Keller still holds the top spot. You need to keep lowering that minimum all the way to 221 before you see a pitcher take over the lead in fewest homers allowed since 2018. That’s impressive.
How does he do it, you ask? Great question. A big part of it is that he keeps the ball on the ground. Moving that minimum back to 350 innings since his debut, he has the second best ground ball rate in baseball. It’s hard to hit home runs on the ground, so that’s absolutely a big deal. He also limits hard contact. According to Fangraphs, he ranks 20th out of 50 in hard contact. And if you hadn’t already figured it out, I spend a lot of time on Baseball Savant, which is where I see that he was in the 89th percentile of all pitchers in limiting barrels in 2020. For what it’s worth, he was 70th percentile in 2019 and 83rdin 2018, so it’s something he’s repeated.
Here’s his percentiles from Baseball Savant:
Just for a brief statistical interlude here, a barrel is a batted ball whose comparable hit types with regard to exit velocity and launch angle have led to at least a .500 batting average and 1.500 SLG. According to MLB.com’s glossary, “To be Barreled, a batted ball requires an exit velocity of at least 98 mph. At that speed, balls struck with a launch angle between 26-30 degrees always garner Barreled classification. For every mph over 98, the range of launch angles expands.”
Got it? Good.
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So the point here is that Keller doesn’t get hit especially hard and even on the hard hit balls he allows (and he actually allows an above average number according to Baseball Savant), they just don’t get barreled. So that makes things a little more difficult to find a comp for him. But after this far too long intro, I’m going to try because the reality is that the Royals have a decision to make on Keller whether to go year to year and let him walk when his team control is over/trade him before they lose him for nothing or give him an extension to buy out a couple free agent years.
I went back to 1995 and searched for all pitchers with a similar statistical profile to Keller. That means qualified pitchers with a ground ball above 49 percent, a strikeout rate below 20 percent and a walk rate between eight and 11 percent. I originally had the age range of 22 to 24, but I decided to expand to 26 as the top end after I only found eight results, but here are the seven other pitchers before the expansion:
Of those seven, I kind of feel like Lannan, Cahill and and Chacin just didn’t throw hard enough to really be in the conversation. Without the hard fastball, it’s tough to compare as the styles are just so different. The other four, though, all averaged at least 93 on their fastball and at least 92 on their sinker. Of the remaining for, Lyles and Perdomo didn’t have the success that Keller has had in both limiting barrels and limiting home runs. Aaron Sanchez is kind of an unknown because of all the injury issues and then there’s Senzatela. He has a hard hit rate above the league average but limits barrels quite well, is very fastball and slider heavy and I would argue has limited home runs well considering his home park is Coors Field.
So that’s a reason for concern in looking at him. I know that pitching in Denver is tough, but could Keller someday look at a season like Senzatela had in 2019? Keller’s strikeout rate, while fairly anemic, is still better than what Senzatela has shown, but there’s at least reason to worry somewhat.
Let’s expand the search to include those who fall into the age group a couple years older and see what we have.
It’s now 29 names and there are some good ones like Brandon Webb, Tim Hudson, Justin Masterson, Garrett Richards and Yordano Ventura. There are also some that we maybe wouldn’t want to see in there like Wily Peralta (although he was pretty solid to start his career), Horacio Ramirez and Aaron Laffey. The issue, though, is that with the exception of Hudson, injuries have taken their toll on most of these pitchers. And while I’d never predict a pitcher will be injury-free, Keller hasn’t yet had any problems, so let’s not pretend that just because he has a similar profile and is a pitcher, he will get hurt.
I don’t think Keller is Hudson. Their repertoire was just too different. Webb had some great stuff, but he was even more ground ball driven than Keller. I do like the comparison to Masterson, though, as he didn’t throw as hard as Keller (though there might be some velocity inflation from a decade-ish ago), but he did rely mostly on a fastball/slider combination without much help from a changeup.
If Keller really is Masterson, we can see that Masterson threw 924 innings from age 24 to 29. He walked a few too many and struck out a few too...few and posted an ERA of 4.31, which in that time was about 10 percent below league average. Keller has been 31 percent above league average to start his career and Masterson never had a run like that in his career. I’m not sure he’s the best comparison here either.
The other similar player to Keller is Richards, who was the Angels ace before injuries derailed him a bit. From 2013 to 2015, he threw 521 innings with a strong ground ball rate, fewer strikeouts than you want and a reasonable, but not exceptional walk rate. He also relied on a fastball and slider similar to Keller, though he did throw a little harder in his younger days. But again, he ran into injury issues, so it’s hard to say what kind of path he’d have been on if he could have stayed healthy.
The reality that I’m running into is that Keller is weird. Let’s make that read a little better and kinder. Keller is unique. You don’t find many guys with his velocity and his end results typically with the way he’s gotten there. What I’m extremely curious about is how this changeup we’re hearing about is going to work for him. He threw 17 of them in 2020, all to lefties. And it was effective, but it also just 17 of them.
Now, the talk is that he’s going to throw it more, which is pretty typical of spring training. We hear a lot about new pitches. In fact, we heard about Keller’s changeup last year as well. And then he threw 17 of them. But if he can successfully incorporate his changeup to his repertoire, maybe he can mirror some of the success of a guy the Royals once had in camp, Clay Buchholz. Before you scoff, remember that Buchholz threw 554 innings from his age 25 through 28 seasons with a solid ground ball rate and middling strikeout and walk rates. But he kept the ball in the park exceptionally well and limited runs scored. Of course, he also got hurt.
Add the changeup to the fastball…
…and the slider…
…and that could be a whole lot of fun.
So I guess what I’m saying here is that I’m glad I’m writing here and not the one who has to decide if it’s smart or foolish to offer Keller something long-term. His best comps all got hurt and there aren’t many comps that are even that great in the first place. He’s both completely non-descript; a pitcher like so many with a mid-90s fastball and a slider and also in a category of his own; a pitcher without many true comps. At this point, I’m curious to see how he repeats a fantastic short season and if he can handle a big workload increase that pretty much every pitcher will face in 2021.
We can talk until we’re blue in the face about all the young pitching on the horizon, but the reality is that none of them have the resume of Keller, who isn’t much older than a lot of the guys Royals are pinning hopes on. He’s a unicorn, but maybe we’ll get some clearer answers on him in 2021 as the Royals are hoping he can lead this rotation into the next winning era.