Fantasy Baseball: Can Dallas Keuchel Rebound in 2017?

Coming off a rough season, can the 2015 Cy Young winner bounce back?

Coming off back-to-back stellar 2014 and 2015 campaigns, including the American League Cy Young Award in 2015, Dallas Keuchel was primed for a huge 2016. And pundits took note -- using Tristan Cockroft's top-250 rankings, Keuchel was the 13th-ranked starting pitcher on the board heading into last season.

But unfortunately for Houston Astros fans and Keuchel owners, 2016 was a train wreck. Keuchel went 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA in 168 innings before being shut down for the rest of the season with left shoulder inflammation.

As a result of that tough season, 2017 consensus rankings have dropped Keuchel, and he has slid all the way down to the 32nd-ranked starting pitcher. That's a pretty steep drop for a guy who was named the best pitcher in the American League just two seasons ago.

Let's take a deeper dive on Keuchel's 2016 and try to make sense of whether he can return to his previous form.

A Rough Start to the Year

While Keuchel was shut down late in the year with the shoulder injury, Keuchel expressed concerns about his arm the whole season due to the increased workload from 2015 -- including the postseason, Keuchel threw a career high of 246 innings, 46 more than his previous high set in 2014.

Whether it was injury or workload, the first half of the season was eerily reminiscent to his first full season in the bigs in 2013, which was a struggle.

Season Innings ERA FIP Strikeout Rate Walk Rate Hard-Hit Rate
2013 153 2/3 5.15 4.25 18.0% 7.6% 29.3%
2016 First Half 120 4.80 4.01 20.3% 7.2% 30.4%

Keuchel posted a decent strikeout rate, and his FIP marks in both seasons show that he pitched a bit better than his ERA suggests. It also showed that in both time frames, Keuchel struggled with walks a bit, and he was getting rocked all over the yard with elevated hard-hit rates.

Using pitch data from the fine folks over at Brooks Baseball, Keuchel's velocity on both his four-seamer and his sinker were noticeably down in 2016 -- which coincides with Keuchel noting that he felt like he couldn't get anything "on the ball" last season.

Keuchel's velocity to start the season was down over 2 miles per hour (MPH) in comparing April 2015 to April 2016 (90.14 MPH to 88.04 MPH, respectively). And in comparing all of the months individually before the break, this trend continued. Whatever the culprit, something was wrong, and it sure showed.

A Tale of Two Halves

The second half for Keuchel was cut short due to his shoulder tenderness, limiting him to only seven starts, but even though it was a small sample, he seemed to be rounding back into form.

Season Innings ERA FIP Strikeout Rate Walk Rate Hard-Hit Rate
2014 200 2.93 3.21 18.1% 5.9% 19.7%
2015 232 2.48 2.91 23.1% 5.6% 21.3%
2016 1st Half 120 4.80 4.01 20.3% 7.2% 30.4%
2016 2nd Half 48 3.94 3.52 21.2% 5.8% 28.3%

While Keuchel still had a high ERA, his FIP dropped significantly in the second half, and perhaps the biggest positive sign was the decline in walk rate. Keuchel's drop by 1.4% between the first and second half showed significant improvement and mimicked those past seasons of excellence.

And while his hard-hit rate still didn't recede to his 2014 or 2015 levels, he did show significant improvement in keeping the ball in the yard. After allowing 1.13 homers per nine innings in the first half, that mark dipped to 0.94 in the second half. It's interesting to note that he was able to do this while his fly-ball rate increased -- jumping up from 22.8% in the first half to 28.5% in the second half, so there was likely some luck involved in the depressed homers since he was allowing a 28.3% hard-hit rate and 28.5% fly-ball rate in that stretch.

To go along with these positives, Keuchel's velocity also rebounded in the second half to a near negligible difference between the two halves in 2015 and 2016, per Brooks Baseball.

A Fair Asking Price

Buying back in on any pitcher who is returning from a shoulder issue is scary, and if that's too risky a proposition for some, it's hard to fault that logic. Fantasy owners will remember the hefty price they spent to acquire Keuchel last season, and he graced teams with a massive stink bomb before shutting things down. But Keuchel's limited second half last year showed a return to form in a lot of metrics.

Was that just a fluke, or was it a sign of things to come? Honestly, it's hard to say, but his current value -- he's the 32nd-ranked starting pitcher -- doesn't make him that risky of an investment.

If we take Keuchel's current offseason comments at face value, the rest may have done him some good. It's going to be hard to find any player who doesn't proclaim to be in the best shape of their life this time of the year, but is important to note that Keuchel's timetable to return has remained on track.

The Astros believed enough in Keuchel's ability to bounce back in 2017 by handing out $9.15 million for his services in 2017. Keuchel's upside as the 32nd-ranked starting pitcher is tremendous -- using ESPN's 2015 player rater, in his Cy Young season, Keuchel finished as the fifth-ranked starting pitcher.

While betting on that type of rebound may be a bit of a stretch, his positive regression in the second half means he could be in line for a decent bounce-back year. If he looks good in spring training, his average draft position will likely climb, but at his current price, he's probably a worthwhile draft-day gamble.