Is Brad Keller too much a worry for the KC Royals?

(Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports)
(Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports) /

The dice roll that’s always the Rule 5 Draft appeared to have paid off handsomely for the KC Royals in 2018. The club watched Cincinnati pick pitcher Brad Keller in the previous December’s Rule 5, then quickly worked a deal with the Reds to bring him to Kansas City.

Although the righthander wasn’t the Royals’ Rule 5 pick, he arrived in Kansas City as if he was, carrying with him the burden of the draft’s rules—with limited exceptions, the club risked losing him if they didn’t keep him on the roster for the entire 2018 season.

Fortunately, Keller made that risk a non-issue. Although he’d never before thrown a big-league pitch, his nine wins tied Jakob Junis for the team lead, his ERA was 3.08, and he won KC’s Pitcher of the Year award.

Unfortunately, Keller’s sophomore campaign was a different story. He went 7-14 and his ERA jumped to 4.19.

He was back in form in 2020, however, with a 5-3, 2.47 effort good for his second team Pitcher of the Year award.

But Keller’s on-again, off-again relationship with excellent pitching continued last season when he struggled to 8-12 and a team-worst 5.39 ERA. A right lat strain forced him to the 10-day Injured List in August and the club transferred him to the 60-day List in September.

The campaign was worse than his won-loss record, ERA and IL stint suggest.

Brad Keller suffered the worst of his four KC Royals seasons in 2021.

The memory of Keller’s decent, albeit short, 2020 faded quickly in 2021. Texas pummeled him Opening Day for six runs in 1.1 innings, he gave up four runs in 3.1 innings his next time out, and the Rays knocked him out of his fourth start with five runs in 1.2 frames. He won twice in April but finished with a 9.00 ERA.

Despite giving up seven runs in 4.1 innings in his first May start, Keller improved to 3-2, 3.86 for the month. But his June ERA ballooned to 8.31 and he lost four games. July was better (1-1, 2.28), but he was 1-3, 4.68 in August when he threw his last pitch of the season. He finished 8-12, 5.39.

Although Keller’s eight wins were the second-most of his career and his 12 losses were two less than his 2019 total, 2021 was the lowest point of his four-year big league tenure. He yielded more runs (89) and home runs (18) than he had before, that 5.39 was his worst ERA by over a run, his 85 ERA+ 29 points worse than he’d ever posted, his 4.3 BB9 was his highest, and his 10.64 H/9, .292 OBA and .374 BABIP were all career worsts. And it was all marked by an increasingly frustrating inconsistency.

All that is, of course, reason to worry in Kansas City.

Brad Keller could be at a big league career crossroad with the KC Royals.

Keller’s 2021 season wasn’t good, but it wasn’t so bad that Kansas City should consider letting him go immediately. He’s only 26 (27 in July) and despite his unsightly first half—6-9 with a 5.97 ERA at the All-Star Break—was looking a bit better in the second before his lat injury cost him all of September.

But 2022 is critical, possibly a make-or-break season for Keller if he wants to remain a Royal. He’s becoming an enigma, a good pitcher one day but a bad one the next, and the unreliability of such hurlers tends to force them into other professions.

The best evidence of Keller’s ability is his 9-6 rookie season; the next best is his 5-3, sub-3.00 ERA 2020, but those latter numbers are products of only nine starts. How would he have fared over a full 162-game campaign?

So it is Keller heads into 2022 plagued by uncertainty. Two team Pitcher of the Year awards are nice, and deserved, but he hasn’t yet developed the kind of consistency required of reliable and winning front-line starters.

When he’s on, though, he’s very on. That’s what keeps the Royals in his corner and media and fan talk of contract extensions churning—considering his inconsistency and every-other-season struggles, however, extending him after last year would be only slightly less unwise than KC giving Hunter Dozier his $25 million, four-year deal last February.

No, it isn’t time for the Royals to jettison Keller. The promise of 2018 is still too fresh, his potential too great. But the worries about him are there, so it’s time for him to shed his too-frequent mound struggles.

Before it might be too late.

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