The Kansas City Royals have a 24-year old starting pitcher in whom they have great confidence. He was their 2018 Pitcher of the Year but slipped in 2019. Is his good rookie season and potential enough to justify a contract extension?
The Kansas City Royals had a forgettable starting rotation in 2019. Of seven pitchers who started at least 10 games, only two (Danny Duffy and Homer Bailey) had winning records. They each went 7-6, while the other five combined to lose over twice as many games as they won as starters (25-53). Bailey is gone, dealt away in a trade deadline deal and there is talk of moving Duffy to the bullpen. Rotation depth is shallow.
By any measure, last season’s rotation was a disappointment and Brad Keller may have been the most disappointing starter. Much was expected of the second-year hurler: he won the Royals’ Pitcher of the Year award and was named to Baseball America’s All-Rookie Team in 2018 after going 9-6 with a 3.08 ERA in 41 games. A 2019 rotation spot was his before the campaign even started.
So impressed with Keller’s 2018 performance was the club that it named him its 2019 Opening Day starter. The honor was well-earned: after starting his rookie year in the bullpen, he made 21 2018 relief appearances before moving into the rotation for the first time on May 30; his next 20 appearances were all starts in which he went 8-5 with a 3.28 ERA. He was 7-2 with a 3.04 ERA after the All-Star break.
Then, Keller’s 2019 Day performance proved the club’s confidence in him was well placed. He held Chicago scoreless for seven innings, limiting the White Sox to two hits while striking out five and walking only one. He faced only three batters over the minimum to earn the win.
Unfortunately, Opening Day didn’t set the tone for the rest of Keller’s season. He started 27 more games, pitching at least seven innings in seven of them before arm fatigue brought his campaign to a late August end. He finished 7-14 record with a 4.19 ERA. Mediocre run support played some role in his disappointing season (the Royals scored two runs or less in one-half of his starts) and Keller was 1-9 with four no-decisions in those contests.
But poor run support doesn’t completely explain Keller’s 2019 troubles. His 3.8 BB9 rate translates to almost one-half of a walk per actual inning pitched (70 walks in 165.1 innings), a rate slightly worse than 2018, and he threw nine wild pitches. Excessive walks have been a problem throughout his career: In seven professional seasons, his BB9 rate has been below 2.5 only twice, and then only in A and High-A ball. His two-season major league BB9 is 3.5.
Although Keller has a baffling slider — batters managed a trifling .194 against it last season and .221 the year before — they hit .301 against his sinker and .259 against his four-seam fastball (the pitch he throws the most) in 2019. On top of that, the arm fatigue that shortened his 2019 season is a concern.
The Royals remain high on Keller, but does their confidence in the young pitcher, and his stellar 2018 season, warrant an early contract extension? Keller is a pre-arbitration player and won’t be eligible for free agency until 2024; an emerging trend in the industry is to offer contract extensions to pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players to eliminate or delay their free agency by buying out arbitration years with multi-year contracts.
Players can also benefit from early extensions. Against the backdrop of the uncertain and unpredictable free agent markets of the last couple of winters, such extensions offer comfort, security and guaranteed money. No one can blame young players for foregoing unpredictable shots at free agency by minimizing ultimate market risk and getting as much guaranteed money as soon as they can.
Of course, contract extensions of any sort also pose risks for teams. Take, for example, the Alex Gordon and Danny Duffy extensions which have reaped more benefits for the players than ownership. And uncertainty may be too much to justify offering Keller an early extension — at least at this point.
Although the results of his rookie season could tempt the Royals to consider extending Kelly (his 9-6 record and 3.08 ERA in 41 games were promising evidence of his potential, especially as a starter), his discouraging sophomore season should weigh against an immediate extension. Keller lost twice as many games as he won in 2019, his ERA increased by over a run, and his FIP was almost .80 worse than in 2018. The second half of his season was better than his first but the campaign as a whole, his control and his arm fatigue should give the Royals pause.
That Brad Keller can pitch is indisputable; his 2018 rookie season with the Kansas City Royals proves that. But his disappointing 2019 season, a campaign in which he lost two-thirds of his decisions, clouds his rookie effort, and control troubles and arm fatigue are concerning. Although 2018 and his potential might tempt the Royals to offer him an early contract extension, the club should gauge the results of another full season before committing to him long-term. There’s no need to rush an extension. Keller and the club have plenty of time.