Free agent utility infielder Jeff Keppinger has agreed to a three-year deal with the Chicago White Sox worth $12M in what could be a bargain if Keppinger, one of the best contact hitters in the game, can keep his line-drive rate and BABIP up.
Last season, with the Tampa Bay Rays, Keppinger hit .325/.367/.439 with 127 wRC+; the second best mark of his career. Keppinger maintained his high contact rates, striking out in less than 7.5% of his plate appearances, and posted the second highest line-drive rate of his career at 23.2%.
Line-drives have the best chance of falling for hits so it was no surprise that his BABIP was nearly a career high at .332, and, for a man who rarely hits the ball over the fence or strikes out, his overall average will likely be close to his BABIP and heavily influence his offensive production at the plate. Take a look at his BABIP compared to his average:
It’s logical that one’s BABIP would determine their overall batting average but it is overly true for Keppinger who’s average is only -.006 different from his BABIP. Carlos Lee is the only active player whose BABIP is that close to his overall batting average.
Since 2004, Keppinger’s first year in the Majors, his 6.4% strikeout rate is bested only by Juan Pierre. The White Sox are losing A.J. Pierzynski and likely replacing him with Tyler Flowers. Pierzynski’s strikeout rate was 15% last year while Flowers’ was 36.6%. This will add to the swings-and-misses so the White Sox needed to find some extra contact to put in their lineup that includes Adam Dunn, Dayan Viciedo, and Flowers.
On the defensive side of the ball, Keppinger had a great season at third base, the position he will be manning, posting a +6.7 UZR. No one expects him to replicate that but he is at least average defensively there and likely will not hurt the team with the glove.
At an annual average salary of just $4M, Keppinger only needs to produce just under 1.0 fWAR for the deal to be a push. With his contact skills and three seasons of over 2.0 fWAR, I’d bet the over that the White Sox get a decent return on this investment.