Why the White Sox and Blue Jays had to Overpay for Keuchel and Ryu

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Dallas Keuchel delivers a pitch in the second inning.

The last of the high-end free agent starting pitchers came off the board in recent days as the Chicago White Sox signed Dallas Keuchel and the Toronto Blue Jays landed Hyun-Jin Ryu. The Sox inked Keuchel for three years and $55 million; the deal also includes a vesting option for a fourth year that could increase the dollar figure to $74 million. The Jays’ deal with Ryu is similar, coming in at four years and $80 million.

Both Keuchel and Ryu are very talented and accomplished left-handed starters, and have been for some time. Keuchel won the AL Cy Young award in 2015, and is a two-time all-star (‘15 and ‘17). He has reached at least 2.3 fWAR in five of his eight Major League seasons, and has a stellar postseason track record as well (3.47 ERA in 59.2 IP).

Ryu has also been solid, and at times excellent, throughout his career. His 2.98 lifetime ERA stands out, and as The Athletic’s Molly Knight notes, is extremely rare among Major League starting pitchers. Ryu’s best season came at the perfect time, as his 2019 pre-free agency campaign was spectacular. He finished third in the NL Cy Young balloting, as he recorded a miniscule 2.32 ERA (3.10 FIP), and walked only twenty-four batters in 182.2 IP (1.18 BB per 9 IP).

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Despite the impressive repertoires of both pitchers, both of their deals are fairly significant overpays in terms of AAV and total value. Keuchel (31) and Ryu (32) are each on the wrong side of thirty, and their best years are almost certainly behind them. Ryu’s dominant ‘19 season was by no means a fluke, but it is highly improbable that it will be repeated. Fangraphs’ Steamer projects the former Dodger to post an ERA of 4.27 (4.25 FIP) in 2020, which is sure to increase year-by-year as he ages. The same goes for Keuchel, as Steamer expects his ERA to reach 4.42 (4.54 FIP) in ‘20.

The fact of the matter is that the Sox and Jays will be on the hook for nearly $20 million per year for pitchers who are in decline, and may not even perform much better than league average.

Yet, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The White Sox and Blue Jays are both in dire need of starting pitching. In 2019, the Jays and Sox ranked twenty-second (5.25) and twenty-fourth (5.30) in team ERA for starters. Both clubs are in a rebuilding state, but are looking to move into contention sooner rather than later. Keuchel and Ryu will help them do just that by providing a steady and stabilizing presence to each team’s unproven rotation.

Neither the South Side of Chicago nor Toronto seemed to be obvious or desirable locations for big-ticket free agent starting pitchers, which is likely why the teams had to overpay to secure their services. The integrity of the game of baseball is strengthened when teams spend money in order to improve their roster, and these signings are a prime example of this idea coming to fruition.

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