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International Free Agent Profile 2014: Bobby Keppel

Like Jason Isringhausen, can Bobby Keppel return to the Mets in his twilight years to have a positive impact on the team?

Shea Stadium
Shea Stadium

Does the name sound familiar? It should. Born in June 1982, Robert Griffin Keppel was drafted in the first round of the 2000 Amateur Draft by the New York Mets with the compensation pick (36th overall) gained by the departure of incumbent first baseman John Olerud. Though he had the tools to succeed, evidenced by his high selection in the draft, Keppel was never to put everything together and he stagnated in the Mets' farm system for years. That's not to say that he was bad—he had multiple fair years with the team in the early 2000s—but injury, a steep learning curve, and other factors inhibited his growth to its highest potential. At the end of the 2005 season, he became a minor league free agent as he and the Mets parted ways.

Keppel signed a contract with the Kansas City Royals, and after being assigned to the Omaha Royals, their Triple-A affiliate, he pitched his way onto the team in mid-May. His first pair of appearances came out of the bullpen, but for the entire month of June, he was part of the Royals' starting rotation, pitching six games. At first, he looked all right. In his first three starts, he gave up 7 earned runs in 20 innings, good for a 3.15 ERA, but things quickly went downhill.

In his next three starts, he gave up 12 earned runs in 7.2 innings for a 14.09 ERA. His biggest problem was his paltry strikeout rate and his reliance on fly balls, which were turning into home runs at the MLB level. Kansas City sent him back down to Omaha, where he finished out a lackluster year. Keppel was shredded by PCL bats; in 98.1 innings, he served up 12 home runs, good for a 5.67 ERA.The next few seasons would be more or less the same scenario being repeated over, in different locations.

He began the 2007 season with the Colorado Rockies, as he was added to the roster a few days into the season. Keppel appeared in a handful of games and was generally ineffective, causing the team to designate him to its Triple-A affiliate, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. In 138 innings, he was once again beaten around by Triple-A bats, posting a 5.48 ERA. That winter, he was signed as a minor league free agent by the Florida Marlins, and assigned to their Triple-A affiliate, the Albuquerque Isotopes. In 159.1 innings in 2008, he posted a 5.99 ERA, the highest in his career. He was signed as a minor league free agent by the Minnesota Twins in 2009.

Keppel's 2009 season was his best to date. Assigned to the Twins' Triple-A affiliate, the Rochester Red Wings, Keppel pitched primarily out of the bullpen. He was surprisingly effective, posting a 2.38 ERA through the first two months of the season. He earned himself a promotion to the Twins, and became a regular out of their bullpen from late June until the end of the season, where he was moderately effective. Keppel found himself on the mound in extra innings when the Twins took on the Detroit Tigers in that exciting Game 163 to determine the AL Central Division Champions that year, and went home with the win when Alexi Casilla drove in Carlos Gomez to walk off the game.

The Twins released the right-hander in early January, and two days later, he was signed by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Instead of using Keppel as a reliever, the Fighters used him as a starter. Given that his main weakness was his propensity for the long ball and home runs generally came in fewer number in Japan, it seemed like a natural fit. And, indeed, Keppel succeeded.

In his first year, Bobby pitched 158.2 innings with a 3.35 ERA. Though his walk and strikeout ratios remained roughly the same, he slashed his home run rate nearly in half. He came back for a second year in 2011 and had a similar season, posting a 3.22 ERA in 162 innings.

He returned to the Fighters for the 2012 season, signing a $1.1 million extension. Things did not go particularly well for the St. Louis native. After making only two starts, he was sidelined with shoulder problems. Returning to the U.S. to get examined, the righty eventually underwent surgery for contusions in the subscapularis muscle and glenoid labrum in his right shoulder, ending his season. Because it was June and the recovery time is generally six months, his season was done.

Despite the injury, Nippon Ham decided to retain the pitcher, inking him to another one-year contract. He rehabbed slowly, making sure to be fully healthy before making his season debut. Keppel made his first start in July, a few months into the regular season and almost a full calendar year after he first went under the knife. Bobby made seven ineffective starts before the Fighters decided to part ways and cut him.

His MLB stats are as follows:

Year Age ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/9
2009 27 4.83 4.32 54 5.3 3.5 10.5 0.7

His MiLB stats are as follows:

Year Age ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/9
2009 27 2.43 3.29 55.2 4.5 2.1 8.2 0.2

His NPB stats are as follows:

Year Age ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/9
2010 28 3.35 3.95 158.2 4.8 3 8.8 0.6
2011 29 3.22 4.22 162 3.7 3.1 9 0.6
2012 30 9.00 3.53 6 3 3 18 0
2013 31 5.35 4.96 33.2 3.7 4.3 9.6 0.8

Keppel doesn't throw anything fancy. He is primarily a fastball pitcher, mixing in a slider to keep hitters off balance. He periodically dabbles with other pitches, such as curveballs, changeups, and splitters, but doesn't throw these pitches with any real regularity. In the United States, his fastball sat in the low 90s, maxing out in the mid-90s. Since going to Japan, he has lost a few ticks on his fastball, with the pitch sitting just a shade under 90 miles per hour on average. This might be because of age or because of his different role in Japan as a starter, as opposed to a max effort reliever. The slider is thrown almost as hard as the fastball, coming in a few miles per hour slower.

Does He Make Sense For The Mets?

Keppel, in theory, could be used as both a starter and a reliever, given his history of doing both. While he has had more success as a starter, because of his time in Japan, he has a history of work out of the bullpen in MLB, so I think that would be his most likely assignment. The question now becomes whether or not he can match any of the success that he had in Japan as a starter in MLB as a reliever.

Truthfully, I don't think so. Unlike other pitchers who have gone to Japan, Keppel hasn't particularly changed. His pitch selection is more or less the same; he hasn't added anything new that will stymie MLB hitters. His pitch velocity is more or less the same; if anything, the decreased fastball velocity makes him less effective as a pitcher if the reason for it is age, as opposed to role. After undergoing surgery in 2012, his numbers in the 2013 are clearly down, adding to his problems.

Keppel might be a nice story, a former number one draft pick returning to the team in his twilight years, but the narrative does not matter on the field. If it isn't apparent that the player is some kind of upgrade over what exists, in most cases, I don't care about how nice the story is. In the case of Bobby Keppel, I don't necessarily think he can be a better reliever or swingman than Carlos Torres or Gonzalez Germen, both of whom fit that profile and are already with the team.