Last season, Dallas Keuchel found his two-seam fastball and rode it all the way to 3.8 fWAR over 200 IP, a mark which put him comfortably in the top quartile of qualified starting pitchers. This season, he's taken it to a whole other level, accumulating 5.0 fWAR over his first 178.2 innings.
Keuchel picked a pretty good time to get great. At the end of this season, he'll have amassed more than three years of service time, and is set to enter arbitration for the first of potentially three times. As the All-Star Game starter and legitimate candidate for the Junior Circuit Cy Young award this season, Dallas Keuchel will have a strong case in front of an arbitrator, so it's should come as no surprise that he and the Astros have been talking contract extension.
History suggests that Keuchel will sign a deal that buys out between two and three of his arbitration years, possibly with an extension. The table below show the extensions signed by starting pitchers with between three and four years of service time since 2009. An asterisk beside a player's name indicates they had super two status. Two asterisks indicates that the contract included an option year. All stats are for pre-arbitration yeas.
Last offseason, Lance Lynn and Wade Miley signed similar deals. Miley signed away his arbitration years for just over $19 million, with a $12 million team option for his first free agency year. Lynn signed for $22 million, which covered his remaining years of team control.
Mat Latos is the most recent starter to take the least conservative route, signing a two-year deal and retaining his final year of arbitration. While his consolation prize was not insubstantial ($9.4 million), Latos would lose his first and final arbitration hearing after an injury plagued 2014 in which he pitched just 102.1 innings. His three year salary ($20.9 milion) settles in right between what Lynn and Miley signed for.
Lynn may be the closest comparable to Keuchel among these extension signers, as the latter is projected to accumulate 1.0 fWAR over the balance of the season, which would bring the two in line. Lynn posted a lower FIP (3.34) and superior strike out rate (23%) over his pre-arbitration years, and owned a better than league average ground ball rate (49%). The inducement of ground balls, however, is the area in which Keuchel most excels, as the league leader among pitchers with at least with at least 200 IP over the last two years (63%). Kid Keuchy owes it all to his two-seam fastball. By linear weights, not only has it been the best in the majors over that same time period (36.4), it is second only to Tyson Ross' slider (40.7) off all pitchers thrown by any pitcher.
So Keuchel has been really good at getting hitters to ground out. That's a good thing. Ground balls turn into runs less often than other batted ball types, and it appears to be a repeatable skill. Pair this with the things that hold value as comparables between players in arbitration — like the aforementioned awards, wins (14, tied for 4th in MLB), ERA (2.37, 6th in MLB), and a good track record of health — and Keuchel seems to hold a favorable position from which to negotiate. This should allow him to easily best the extensions his peers in the table above received, even if he doesn't want to "break the bank".
David Price's earnings in his first three years of arbitration (he was a super two so he had four) likely represent the high water mark that Keuchel could achieve if he continues to dominate the way he has for the last two seasons. While he never actually made it to arbitration, Price earned a total of $28.5 million over his first three years, signing one-year deals each time.
Like Keuchel, Price began his negotiations as one of the best starting pitchers in the league. If you inflate his yearly earnings by 5%, his deal works out to $32.5 million in this coming offseason money. A Keuchel extension probably won't reach this peak, but he might come close. He will certainly give up some money should he sign away his arbitration years — that`s simply the cost of avoiding the risk to earnings in case of injury or poor performance. A three-year, $27.5 million agreement would strike the balance between his promise and this risk, and would set him up for a final monster contract as he enters his thirties, and hopefully, his prime.
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