keyboard_arrow_uptop
The Annual is coming! Click here to pre-order the 2020 Baseball Prospectus Book

Last time, the Two Trains put under the microscope were a pair of pitchers who are relatively new to the league, but this week we turn our attention to a couple of veterans who are finishing out their 20s as top-20 options in fantasy drafts. One of today's pitchers has been in high demand on the fantasy market for over a decade, while the other is a relatively new arrival to the scene, but both players have taken home the ultimate hardware.

Dallas Keuchel

NFBC ADP: 45 overall, 14 among SP

Keuchel came out of nowhere in 2014 to lead the pitching rotation of the last-place Astros, but his fantasy stock was debatable given his advanced age (he was 27 entering the 2015 season), modest fastball (average velo of 90.5 mph), low K count and past struggles. So he naturally went ahead and upped the ante, lopping another half-run off his ERA in 2015 while upping his strikeout rate by 1.8 K/9, earning hardware for the AL Cy Young Award as well as the Gold Glove among AL pitchers.

Keuchel seemed to just keep getting better and his best performances of the season took place over the summer, including three different starts in which he struck out 12 or more batters, and he did so without the benefit of facing the AL's most strikeout-prone offense (a.k.a. his own Astros).

Arbitrary Endpoints

Date

IP

ERA

WHIP

BABiP

HR%

BB%

K%

Apr 6 – June 20

107.3

2.35

0.979

.230

1.7%

7.2%

19.9%

Jun 25 – Oct 2

124.7

2.60

1.051

.305

2.0%

4.3%

26.9%

The first split covers his first 15 starts of the season, in which he had 83 strikeouts in 107.3 innings, and in his remaining 18 turns Keuchel struck out 133 batters in 124.7 innings. The BABiP came back to sea level but he allowed fewer walks in the second set despite pitching more innings. The strikeout rate was the key difference, as it jumped an additional seven percentage points from a first-half rate that was nearly two points better than anything that he had posted in previous seasons.

The funny thing is, there wasn't much in Keuchel's repertoire that was extremely different. His average velocity on the fastball was essentially the same all season. His slider continued to be the main culprit for strikeouts, but the pitch didn't outpace his fastball variations by very much (according to Brooks Baseball), and his whiff-per-swing rate on the slider only jumped from 42.2 percent during the first set of games to 42.6 percent from June 25 through the end of the season. The only thing that really stood out as different in the stuff data was that he threw the slider more often (from 26 percent to 37 percent) against right-handed hitters when he got to two strikes, but that's a whittled-down sample that fails to explain such a massive spike in K rate.

Keuchel has a consistent release point that makes me a believer in the low walk rate, and his ability to locate the baseball and spin the yarn en route to weak contact allow his cat-like defense to play up a notch. But the combination of modest stuff and a track record that is light on strikeouts still exists, lending to a perceived ceiling to his upside. It's hard to imagine further growth, though his ability to sustain last season's second-half performance over the course of a full campaign would make his current ADP look like a bargain.

Verdict: A Test of Internal Fortitude

Keuchel has now pitched 432 innings of 2.69 ERA baseball over the past two seasons, his K rate transformed from a liability to an asset in the course of a year, and he plays great defense to boot. He is a valuable asset and the Astros are in good shape with Keuchel at the top of their rotation, but I feel that his fantasy value is a bit inflated. I am typically looking for a bit more stability from pitchers ranked that high on the list, and with Keuchel there is a wide range of possible expectations given his evolution from waiver-wire fodder to fantasy ace in the span of two seasons. Strikeouts weigh too heavily in fantasy and there is enough of a question surrounding his contributions in that department to knock him down a few pegs. His ADP isn't far off of his value, but at that point on the board I see a few options that are more attractive, such as the next item up for bid…

Felix Hernandez

NFBC ADP: 53 overall, 18 among SP

The King is coming down from a rough season, which included a 3.53 ERA that was his highest mark since his age-21 season. The strikeouts were down from his peak of 2013-14 and the walks were up, but with 8.5 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 Hernandez had essentially the same ratios that won him the Cy Young Award in 2010. The home runs spiked to 23 allowed, following eight straight seasons of no more than 20 bombs hit against him. His 18 wins saved him in the eyes of fantasy owners as well as the voters for the Cy Young Award, as the right-hander still finished seventh in the CY voting despite it being a rough season by Felix's standards.

Arbitrary Endpoints

Date

IP

ERA

WHIP

BABiP

HR%

BB%

K%

Apr 6 – July 24

130.3

2.69

1.074

.267

2.1%

7.5%

23.9%

July 29 – Sep 26

71.3

5.05

1.374

.330

3.9%

6.2%

21.8%

It's easy to forget that Hernandez carried a sub-2.00 ERA into June. The overall numbers paint the picture of a declining pitcher, and though Felix is just entering his age-30 season, the mileage that he has accrued from a decade of healthy pitching adds to the narrative that his legacy of AL royalty is getting further in the rearview mirror.

It's easy to play the arbitrary-endpoints game with Felix, but his start-by-start progression is not as interesting as the few outliers that led to his difficult campaign. He gave up more than four runs just four times last season, but each of the four turns was an absolute disaster of an outing, giving up anywhere between seven and 10 earned runs in each game. Two of those outings occurred in the first set of games and he surrendered eight homers across those four contests alone, including three home runs allowed in his 10-run catastrophe in Boston on August 15. Obviously, every pitcher's line looks a lot better if you remove their worst games, but in the case of Hernandez, he was essentially the same ace that we have come to expect in the 27 games in which he didn't get bludgeoned. In those 27 starts, he pitched 187.7 innings of 2.25 ERA baseball with a 177:49 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

We can't just pretend that those disaster starts didn't happen, but since our interest is future performance rather than past, the big question is whether those nightmare ballgames are likely to resurface. Similar to Keuchel's breakout, however, there were few indicators Felix had made substantial changes to his approach or technique.

His timing was often off-kilter in the bad games, causing him to leave the ball up and leading to the barrage of home runs. His velocity was down about a half-tick from 2014, but go back another year and his pitch-speed was essentially the same in '13 as it was in '15. He continued an ongoing trend of increasing his use of the change-up, but the pitch was one of his more effective. His zone profiles were even the same as in the '14 season, including those for a sinker that was hit hard last season. Add it all up, and it seems that a few bad starts have poisoned his reputation.

Verdict: An Ace in Mariners Clothing

The thing is, he's done this before, following his Cy-winning season with a 3.47 ERA in 2011, including K and walk rates that were near-perfect matches for last season. He followed that bizarro season with a 3.06 ERA and a fourth-place finish for the AL Cy. I think it's a mistake to discount him on draft day, so don't be afraid to take advantage – having King Felix as the SP2 on a fantasy staff is an opportunity that rarely presents itself. Hernandez's plummeting fantasy value boils down to a handful of starts that are now in his past, and which have little impact on the pitcher he will be in 2016. There's no avoiding the occasional blow-up if it occurs, as Felix should be starting every game for a fantasy team, but I see last season's struggles as more of an aberration than an indicator of things to come. This is a pitcher who has made 30 or more starts for 10 straight seasons and has Cy-winning upside, including top-eight finishes for the award in six of the last seven seasons.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe