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Player Review: Keaton Winn

The rookie right-hander showed promise as a starter and bulk reliever in 2023 with his velocity and a heavy dosage of the splitter.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at San Diego Padres Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

2023 stats: 9 G (5 GS), 42.1 IP,

Keaton Winn ended his eventful 2023 year by returning to where he last excelled. The 25 year old’s high school in Packwood, Iowa honored the San Francisco Giants right-hander by retiring his number-23 jersey. The resume is impressive: a four-sport athlete, repeated state football awards, an Iowa state track championship, 26 rebounds in a basketball game, the only perfect game in Pekin High School history as well as the career ERA record.

No one wants to peak in high school, but that’s a pretty damn high peak. If I had scorched my high school badminton competition to that degree and my alma mater retired my number, I’d put that on my gravestone. But it’s not just a soured nostalgia for Winn. After being drafted out of community college (twice) by the Giants, the right-hander ended up missing nearly three years of play due to COVID and Tommy John surgery. His MLB debut on June 14th this year was further than most single-A arms from guaranteed. For the Iowan, the high school honor is a celebration of his perseverance, a work-ethic he credits to his teenage-year coaches.

For every savant arm who cruised through the Minors then cruised through the Majors there’s a thousand Joes who get knocked down on their ass and had to figure away to climb back onto their feet. Seeing a pitch you threw get launched 450 feet is a great catalyst for change. Overhaul your mechanics, learn a new pitch, then work tirelessly to get comfortable with all the changes you’ve made and maybe you stumble onto something—the best thing that can happen to a lot of young players is to be humbled.

Life on the mound for Winn has never been as easy as it was in high school. He posted a 4.01 ERA over 336.1 innings pitched in the Minors with a decent K/9 mark (8.7) and decent BB/9 (2.6). His strikeout rate raised eyebrows in Sacramento in 2023 but at the cost of his control (10.2 K/9 to 4.0 BB/9) while his ERA/FIP both swelled towards 5.00.

But with the rotation hobbled, the right-hander got his debut and then some, throwing 42.1 innings over 9 games and 5 starts. There was asterisked success, solid bulk-inning relief outings and starts accompanied by a handshake, great job, but…

Winn allowed 5 runs with 9 K and 3 BB over 12 relief innings spread across three games in June. His first career start on June 29th in Toronto was probably his best outing of the season, dueling Chris Bassitt through 5 23 scoreless innings before a two-out, two-strike, two-run homer off the bat of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. put the Blue Jays on top for good. A tough-luck loss that bled into another—allowing 4 runs on 6 hits over 4 innings against Seattle a week later.

Winn had to wait for his first win. Optioned back to Sacramento after his July start, his return was delayed by a finicky elbow injury and he didn’t pitch in a San Francisco until September. The season at its wit’s end, Winn delivered the desperate Giants to a much-needed win against the Rockies. The 6-inning, 3-run performance stood out mostly for his 9 strikeouts, a total that more than doubled his previous lackluster highs.

It would be his only victory of the year. The following week the Rockies chased him in the 4th at Coors and then Los Angeles tagged him for 6 runs, including 3 homers. A beating that bruised his season’s 3.89/3.66 ERA/FIP, inflating it to a much more unseemingly 4.68/4.37.

What will endear Winn to the coaching staff is his pitching profile. He attacks the zone, keeps contact on the ground, and has a last name with only 4-letters. His 59.3% groundball-rate was just a hair under Logan Webb’s, while his 1.7 BB/9 was bested only by Webb and Ross Stripling. In terms of limiting offense, his 1.039 WHIP led the team.

The damage was done when an opposing hitter got a ball in the air. His 13.3% HR/FB ratio (Baseball Ref, Fangraphs has him at 17.1%) just below Stripling to lead the team (league average was 9.5%). Given his groundball tendencies, it’s not much to be concerned about going forward. Half of his season total came in one game against one of the most potent offenses in the league, and in those moments, Winn really just served up some meatballs to the wrong guys. A 95 MPH sinker down Main Street to Will Smith. A 95 MPH four-seamer in the same location to Freddie Freeman. His split-finger to Guerrero had a lazy drop on it that met the barrel belt high. The last pitch he threw was another dopey splitter, dropping right into J.D. Martinez’s pull-side happy place.

The split-finger is a feel pitch. The slightest pressure on an index or middle finger can affect its path making it hard to control. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a young pitcher with little professional experience had a tendency to overthrow as well as possibly over-rely on a fussy pitch in certain high-leverage scenarios. A splitter up is a BP fastball—especially if you’re looking for it. Based on Guerrero’s golf swing, he knew it was coming. Velocity also comes into play too. Both problematic splitters came in at a 87.5 MPH—a tick slower than Winn’s season average. The drop in velocity gives the shape an earlier hump making it easy to identify. A quicker pace means a later drop, deceiving the hitter for longer. Only 7 of the 23 strikeouts Winn recorded with the split-finger had a velocity below its 88.7 MPH average.

Alex Cobb’s splitter is tighter than Winn’s and thus a bit more predictable. While Winn’s peppered both sides of the plate, Cobb’s was zeroed in on the bottom corner away from lefties, and if it was up, it was off the plate. The tighter vertical and horizontal break helped it to play off Cobb’s sinker better which he typically liked more up in the zone. He threw both equally (about 40% of the time each) while Winn heavily relied on his splitter (55% of the time, the most by any pitcher in MLB), placing his sinker on the back-burner (about 15%). The splitter has nasty vertical movement and horizontal tail but isn’t as protected because he doesn’t have a slider that would break in the opposite direction of it.

For Winn, the four-seamer is the accompaniment: a fastball he used a quarter of the time that averaged 96 MPH with significant lateral arm-side run. The splitter/four-seam combo is Winn’s way of working the North-South zones while his sinker plays more off the other fastball with more drop than slide but at virtually the same speed.

Below Mookie Betts gets wrung up on a four-seamer that bends back towards the plate just enough to bait the umpire. In his next at-bat, Winn deals the sinker. The pitch is up and he has it timed but with the late-drop he pounds the pitch into the ground.

All in all, Keaton Winn has buzzy stuff that’s worth getting excited about. Bendy offspeed and easy salad with movement—for two-thirds of the at-bat it probably wasn’t very fun for hitters. Winn’s 30.7% whiff rate and 32.2% chase rate proved that, but those numbers didn’t culminate in the expected devastating finish. His K-rate was well below-average at 20.3%. Too many pitches in the zone, a predictable mix, lack of control with the splitter, trying to do much in strike-out situations—there could be many answers, but they all somewhat point to a fixable problem for Winn: his inexperience. Time will at least solve some of that quickly. Cobb will be out at the start of the season while the newly bartered-for Robbie Ray will also be out until mid-summer. Even if Farhan Zaidi nabs Blake Snell or Shōta Imanga, Winn will be needed early in 2024 to round out the rotation as a starter and gobble up some innings as a bulk reliever.

It’ll be interesting to see what adjustments Winn makes to his repertoire next season. I imagine making a tweak to up his splitter velocity in order for it to disguise itself a little bit better off his fastballs would be a priority. Tamping down its usage a bit while getting more control over it could increase its value as an out pitch. Another possibility would be to integrate his slider more which would give him an opposite break compared to his other pitches and make him more viable as a starter looking to face the same lineup two or three times in a game.