Dallas Keuchel and diminishing returns

Dallas Keuchel’s free agency poses some challenging questions for potential suitors. Keuchel is a proven postseason performer, a Cy Young award winner and generally considered among the sport’s elite. He’s about a top-30 pitcher, right? Something like that.

But there are some troubling developments under the hood that might keep him from the 5-year-deal he is after.

Keuchel is the consummate ground-ball pitcher. He pummels the bottom of the strike zone with his two-seam fastball, trying to con hitters into weak contact in front of the plate. Notice how dark it is toward the bottom-right corner. That’s no accident.


He has solid command and despite high-80s velocity, the movement is nasty: it’s worked. He rightfully won the 2015 AL Cy Young award and produced an epic postseason start that same year, dominating the New York Yankees in the Wild Card game. When Keuchel is on and he has hitters off-balance, he’s one of my favorite pitchers to watch. Everyone delights in watching Chris Sale or Max Scherzer tear someone apart — don’t overlook the joy of how Keuchel does it.

In 2015 especially, Keuchel was striking out plenty of hitters and limiting the free passes to go along with the groundballs. It made him a truly elite pitcher, right in time for the Houston Astros to kick into high-gear. But in 2018, that tide turned just a bit. The ground balls began to take to the air and the strikeouts slowly evaporated. Look at his last four seasons:

Season Ground ball rate Strikeout percentage
2015 61.7% 23.7%
2016 56.7% 20.5%
2017 66.8% 21.4%
2018 56.7% 17.5%

Some fluctuation is normal. But for a team considering writing a large check to Keuchel, that 13 percent drop in his bread-and-butter coupled with the diminished K rate is worrisome. Keuchel lives and breathes off the ground balls. If that number stays in the low-to-mid 50s, you’ve got a problem.

Obviously, fewer ground balls meant more runs allowed last year. His ERA crept up to 3.74 (FIP of 3.69). Without question that’s still good, especially in the AL. But consider the benefits of pitching in front of the stellar Houston Astros defense (particularly third baseman Alex Bregman and second baseman Jose Altuve), the excellent shifting they employ and the not-so-subtle hosing down of the infield. If Keuchel signs elsewhere he might not find such sophistication elsewhere.

Keuchel turns 31 on Jan. 1. He’s probably just on the far edge of his peak. If you sign Keuchel to the 5-year-deal he wants, you’re hoping against hope that he continues producing ground balls forever and that he maintains his velocity. Last year he averaged 89.3 on his fastball. That’s livable. But is 88.3? He doesn’t have much ground to lose, relative to the cost. He’s not looking for a JA Happ type contract.

That’s the risk. Keuchel on a 1 or 2-year commitment is a fundamentally different proposition. He’ll still likely eat a bunch of innings and be a solid-to-good starter. But if the deal creeps past that, the odds of him becoming a pumpkin start to rise. I might be overreacting to the velocity thing — if anyone could survive on even less velocity, it might be Keuchel. I could be totally wrong. But a contract at five years feels too long, especially when only a handful of teams want the services of this winter’s two generational free agents.

And what does Houston do? Do they want Keuchel back? It would seem like returning home is the best option for the lefty. But the Astros are smart. If they pass on Keuchel despite losing Lance McCullers Jr for the year and watching Charlie Morton bolt to Tampa Bay, that’s a major red flag.


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College Football Playoff Preview: #1 Alabama vs #4 Oklahoma

Oh, how some things never change.

There’s never been a College Football Playoff without Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide. In those four iterations, twice they won, and the losses came to the eventual champion.

Dynasty indeed.

Here they are again, as awesome as ever, smashing teams left and right. But this year’s dominance comes with a new flavor. Now, Saban is armed with a quarterback who could make waves in the NFL. Tua Tagavailoa lit up the SEC all season, throwing dazzling touchdown passes and enticing draft watchers.

Oh, and what of the Tide’s opponent, the Oklahoma Sooners? Yeah, he’s okay, too. Kyler Murray is only the Heisman Trophy winner and a top-10 draft pick in baseball, coached by one of the most innovative minds in the sport, Lincoln Riley.

It seems clear that Alabama (-14) vs Oklahoma (Saturday at 8 p.m., from Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, on ESPN) is the sexier matchup of the playoff. By Bill Connelly’s Offensive S&P+ metric, the two best offenses in the country this year are … Oklahoma and Alabama. Not necessarily what one would expect from the Tide.

Maybe some things do change.

Some of the semifinal matchups from years past have been duds – I’m looking at you, Alabama 24 – Washington 7 and Clemson 31 – Ohio State 0. I’m betting this one is different.

Oklahoma offense vs Alabama defense

Oklahoma is going to score a lot of points on Alabama. I say this for a few reasons. One, their offense is absurd, and Murray is the precise kind of quarterback that has historically given fits to Nick Saban defenses. Two, Alabama is a bit more porous this year than you might assume given their name and coach.

Murray is in the mold of a Johnny Manziel or Deshaun Watson, a creative hyper-athlete who gets the ball to future NFL guys around him (although the most lethal of those weapons, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, likely will play but perhaps in a reduced role). The Heisman Trophy winner punishes mistakes. Alabama could afford to be sloppy against, say, Arkansas, but that won’t fly now. A bad read or a missed tackle can lead to six in the drop of a hat.

Riley is an expert at finding weak spots in a defense. Because the Sooners are blessed with Murray’s arm and a cavalcade of skill talent, they can attack the defense vertically and horizontally. No patch of grass is safe. The Oklahoma counters and RPOs can come from any formation at any time. The Sooners challenge your brain and your feet; if your brain can’t react fast enough, your feet have no chance.

This year’s Bama defense has been more porous than previous units, although the scale here is “historical to excellent” (8th in Defensive S&P+). But if we squint hard enough, you can see a few flaws, including a penchant for big plays. Not many, but the Sooners don’t need many openings, either.

(For the record, the best defense Oklahoma played this year is TCU, at 23. For Bama, it’s Mississippi State at 6.)

So what happens if Brown can’t play? Well, some of Oklahoma’s big-play ability would evaporate, but the offense revolves around Murray and head coach Lincoln Riley’s unique play calls and designs. They’ll still find ways to keep Alabama guessing, and that indecision is lethal.

Alabama offense vs Oklahoma defense

How healthy is Tua? During a recent media session, he said he’d be about 80 percent healthy come game time. He came out of the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship Game against Georgia with a high ankle sprain, leading to Jalen Hurts’ big comeback moment. Hurts’ performance notwithstanding, the Bama offense evolved because of Tagovailoa’s ability to make reads, flow in the pocket and deliver accurate throws downfield.

Hurts has surely grown in a year, but he’s not the starter for a reason.

Tagovailoa had surgery shortly after the Dec. 1 game and has gone through non-contact practices already. He will play, but he won’t be totally right again until next season. The biggest concern would be the risk of re-injury, especially given how many times he’s been hobbled this season.

Is a banged up Tagovailoa enough? Probably. The Sooners are a mess on that side of the ball, and odds are Alabama will be able to move it at will. I mean, Oklahoma ranks 89th in defensive S&P+. There are only 130 teams in the FBS, mind you.

There is no reason for Alabama to come out throwing, given that they might average 10 yards a carry against Oklahoma. In last year’s semifinal, Georgia averaged 9.3 against a better Sooners defense. One could argue Georgia had better running backs, but let’s not belabor the point. Alabama’s trio of running backs – Damien Harris, Najee Harris, and Josh Jacobs — are going to pulverize this Sooners defense, no matter who takes the snap.

I expect a deliberate attack from the Tide.

Special Teams

For all the credit Saban rightfully gets for his meticulous planning and famed process, the Tide typically suck in special teams. It’s the damndest thing. The Tide are 93rd in Special Teams S&P+, while the Sooners rank 32nd. I promise you this, not a single Bama fan wants this game to come down to a field goal.

The Tide are loaded with talent everywhere but kicker, evidently.


I can envision plenty of scenarios where Oklahoma drops 50 on Alabama. I can envision plenty of scenarios where the Tide matches them point for point. I can see Alabama slowing down the Sooners some, but I can’t for the life of me imagine Oklahoma even marginally annoying the Tide offense. I just can’t.

If Alabama throws, they’ll succeed. If they run the ball, they’ll succeed. Given the two options, I expect the Tide will dominate the time of possession, run the ball incessantly and keep Murray and his merry band on the sideline. The best way to slow down Oklahoma is to never let them on the field.

Score: Alabama 45, Oklahoma 27


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College Football Playoff Preview: #2 Clemson vs #3 Notre Dame

Oh, how familiar.

For the fourth consecutive season, Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers are in the College Football Playoff. Each year they’ve had the pleasure of dancing with the sport’s other powerhouse, Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide. A fifth matchup is doable, but to get to there will mean overcoming an excellent Notre Dame team.

Clemson will be the favorite (-10.5 by Bovada as of this writing) when the game kicks off from the Cotton Bowl at 4 p.m. on Saturday. They have the star young quarterback and the pedigree. But this isn’t 2012. The Irish are for real. They pack an elite defense and a playmaking quarterback.

Clemson offense vs Notre Dame defense

Great offenses tend to ebb and flow on the arm of a great quarterback. Swinney knows this as well as anyone. This run of success started with Tajh Boyd, who led the Tigers back into national prominence with an Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State.

Swinney replaced Boyd with one of the best college quarterbacks ever and an eventual first-round pick, Deshaun Watson. Watson famously lit up the Crimson Tide twice in national championship games and claimed one for himself.

Then Watson became a star for the Houston Texans. Next up? Kelly Bryant.

It would be silly to suggest Bryant wasn’t good, but by no means was he on the level of his predecessors. The Clemson defense led the way last year, but the offense struggled at times and proved punchless when it counted. Clemson was summarily choked out by the Tide in last year’s college football semifinal.

Swinney has set a high bar, no doubt. Those expectations led to him benching Bryant this season for uber-recruit Trevor Lawrence, and almost instantly the Tigers became dangerous again (they finished the season ranked 7th in Off. S&P+). Lawrence tossed 24 TDs to only 4 INTs and provided a dimension the Tigers didn’t have before.

It helps, of course, to have an awesome running back in Travis Etienne and an offensive line full of future NFL draft picks. Talent is never an issue in Death Valley. As such, other than games where Lawrence didn’t play much or at all, the Tigers have put up points in droves. This is what we expect from a powerhouse program.

I don’t know if that continues on Dec. 29, because Notre Dame presents quite a challenge. The Irish are arguably the best defense Clemson has faced this season (4th in Def. S&P+)  and boast three All-Americans (defensive back Julian Love, lineman and probable first-round pick Jerry Tillery and linebacker Te’von Coney.). Swinney credited Notre Dame with presenting a complex attack, full of disguises and feints.

Just two years ago the Irish could barely rush the passer. Now they are an ironclad unit. Fixing a leaky part of the defense bonded the big men, and the coaching staff recognizes that. they trust the players to make accurate reads and communicate pre-snap to attack offenses.

The Irish are smart and experienced. They present by far the toughest test yet for young Lawrence. I expect Clemson will manage to put some points, but don’t be surprised if at halftime the Tigers look as toothless as they did last year.

Notre Dame offense vs Clemson defense

Just as the Tigers’ offense kicked into gear after making a change behind center, the Irish came to life in much the same way. Brandon Wimbush opened the year at the helm but the offense sputtered. After three games (all wins, mind you) Kelly pulled Wimbush and went with Ian Book. Book is simply the better thrower and it showed immediately.

Facing a friskier than you’d think Wake Forest team, Book tossed two touchdowns and ran for three more in the win. Few offenses will flourish with a passer who can’t consistently connect downfield, as the Irish discovered. Book is a better fit for a modern offense (especially with Notre Dame’s rather large set of wide receivers), and coincidentally the Irish ended up being pretty darn good (26th in Offensive S&P+).

However … for as promising as Book and the Irish offense has looked, and with all due respect to the Orange, Syracuse ain’t lining up across from them. The issue for Notre Dame is the lack of serious challenge they’ve faced since an early-season victory over Michigan. Remember, Florida State and USC both stunk this season.

Well, a serious challenge awaits on Dec. 29.

Clemson’s defense is the stuff of nightmares. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has a closet full of NFL talent at his disposal. Defensive end Clelin Ferrell and defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence are both likely going to be first-round picks, and Ferrell might go top-10.

Lawrence, however, will miss the game after being flagged for having small amounts of a muscle growth substance called ostarine.  Losing the star defensive tackle pulls some teeth out of the Tigers’ defense, but this unit is loaded for bear. Such is the reality facing a powerhouse program like Clemson.

Before the season, as far back as June, college football watchers were ogling at the sheer talent level of the Tigers front seven. They’ve delivered. Other than an odd performance against South Carolina, the Tigers have looked excellent.

The story of the game hinges on how Notre Dame manages to give Book time to work in the pocket. Can the Irish keep him upright? I’m guessing the running game will be immediately neutralized and Book will have to create big plays on his own.

I’m not confident. It’d be a tall order for anyone, including the two quarterbacks in the other semi-final.

Special teams

Neither are remarkable. Clemson ranks 93d in ST S&P+, Notre Dame 62nd.


Anyone imagining the Cotton Bowl as a repeat of the 2012 National Championship only with Clemson replacing Alabama will be sorely disappointed. The Irish are really good. But ultimately it’s too hard to imagine Book and that offense making enough plays against the tremendous Tigers defense. I expect a lot of three-and-outs and probably a few turnovers.

The Irish must prove they can control the clock and move the ball against Clemson. It’s a tall order, and while Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne might not light up the Irish defense either, but it won’t matter. Even without Dexter Lawrence, the defense carries the day.

Clemson 24, Notre Dame 10


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