- Dallas Keuchel regressed in 2016 after emerging as the Astros' ace in 2015. If the former Cy Young winner has all his pitches working, he will be dangerous again.
It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance at Dallas Keuchel’s year-by-year stats to find where his 2016 season went off the rails. The lefty, who was coming off a Cy Young season, struggled with command and control while dealing with a shoulder injury that limited him to 26 starts. He regressed across the board, striking out a smaller percentage of batters, walking more, adding more than two runs to his ERA, and shaving five percentage points off his ground-ball rate. Given his previous two seasons, last year was a disaster for Keuchel.
When Keuchel broke out across 2014 and 2015, it was his command that pushed him to new heights. Keuchel featuress a sinker-changeup, cutter-slider arsenal, with the individual offerings inside those pairs working in tandem. The sinker and the change move similarly, and while he uses the sinker to hitters from both sides of the plate, the change is typically reserved for righties. Unlike, say, Jake Arrieta, Keuchel’s slider is vastly different from his cutter, with the former having much more tilt to it than the latter. With his sinker sitting in the high-80s to low-90s, Keuchel was never going to get by with power. His command, especially with the sinker, change and cutter, turned him into a ground-ball artist, and the way he toyed with hitters allowed him to run his strikeout rate up to 23.7% in 2015.
All of that flipped on Keuchel last season. He countered the platoon disadvantage against righties in his Cy Young season by excelling at spotting his pitches, most notably his sinker and changeup. He wants to live on the outer third with both of those pitches, which he did, as we can see in this zone profile from Brooks Baseball, in 2015.
Look at all the purple and red to the right in the chart, which represents the outside corner for a righty. Keuchel lived out there, inducing weak contact and whiffs. That helped him limit righties to a .227/.277/.328 slash line in 2015. Now, compare that with his zone profile from last year.
From this we see that Keuchel did a good job burying his slider away from lefties and into righties, but his percentages on the outer third without the platoon advantage plummeted. With both his cutter and change catching more of the plate last season, righties unsurprisingly lit him up to the tune of .264/.322/.450 with 18 homers, more longballs than he gave up to hitters from both sides of the plate in 2015.
If there was a silver lining for Keuchel last season, it was that his stuff didn’t change. He never depended on velocity, so that’s not an issue. So long as he could harness his command once again, there’s reason to believe a rebound is in order. He may not win another Cy Young in his career, but he can certainly get back to being a worthy top-two pitcher for the Astros, as well as a mid-rotation fantasy starter. His first outing of the season proved that both of those remain well within his reach.
Keuchel shut down the Mariners across seven shutout innings on Monday, allowing two hits and two walks with four strikeouts. Of his 17 in-play outs, 12 were grounders, including one double play, and two more were popups. The Mariners hit just three balls with an exit velocity greater than 98 mph, and two of those were grounders. These are the results Keuchel gets when he is at his best. Of course, baseball is a silly game, and sometimes outcomes aren’t determined by process. Sometimes, players just get lucky. We have to ask ourselves if that was the case with Keuchel in his 2017 debut.
The answer, quite clearly, is no. First, let’s take a look at Keuchel’s pitch location chart, courtesy of Statcast. While some of these pitches, particularly the changeups, were a bit more down the middle than Keuchel might like, he spent his entire evening at the bottom of the zone.
Spotting pitches east and west matters a lot more when you’re up in the zone. A pitcher’s first order of business is to keep the ball down, and that is doubly true for a pitcher like Keuchel. We can see in this popup by Danny Valencia how a pitcher can get away with missing his east-west spot, so long as he keeps it low.
Brian McCann is set up over the outer third of the plate, and Keuchel basically splits the plate with this offering. Still, the fact that he kept it down helped get Valencia out in front, resulting in a popup.
Keuchel’s velocity was right, as well. Again, velocity isn’t much of a weapon for him, but you still want to see it at established levels. All of his offerings were right in line with his career norms. Keuchel’s sinker averaged 89.3 mph, his slider checked in at 79.1 mph, and his cutter clocked an average of 87.1 mph. That’s right where he has been since becoming a full-time member of Houston’s rotation in 2013.
To recap where we are right now, Keuchel got the sort of distribution of outs we’d expect from him, he lived down in the zone, and his velocity checked out compared with the previous 127 starts in his career. Keuchel earned every bit of his seven-inning, zero-run, two-hit outing. Now, let’s consider the way he handled the two best hitters in Seattle’s lineup, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz.
The Mariners are being quite helpful in this experiment, given that their two best hitters hit from different sides of the plate. We’ll begin with Cano, who went 1-for-3 with a single in his three trips to the plate against Keuchel. The third time they met was with one out and nobody on in the sixth inning. Keuchel went into the plate appearance at 67 pitches, so he had plenty left in the tank, even for Opening Day. He started Cano with a slider that missed up and away.
That may not be a great pitch, but don’t forget it. We’ll come back to the same offering shortly. What’s important here is the sequencing. Keuchel starts off Cano with a slider that was designed to catch the outer third of the plate.
Keuchel comes back with a sinker he spots beautifully on the outer third, and Cano takes it for a strike. He doesn’t paint the corner, but he doesn’t need to. With Keuchel’s sinker coming back to the plate, Cano’s unlikely to offer at it if it’s where McCann wants it. Keuchel is now even in the count.
On the third, and what turns out to be final, pitch of the at-bat, Keuchel goes back to his slider. This one is thrown well, down and just off the outside corner. Cano puts it in play weakly, popping out to Correa. Keuchel’s sequencing and execution won this plate appearance.
Moving right along, if there was one individual matchup that mattered more than any other for Keuchel, it was Cruz. The slugger entered the game 9-for-22 with three homers and four walks against Keuchel in their previous meetings.
The two fought mostly to a draw, with Cruz going 0-for-2 with a walk. Keuchel induced a weak groundout to Yulieski Gurriel in Cruz’s first plate appearance, walked him in a full count in his second, and got a bit fortunate on a lineout to George Springer in his third. That lineout was the one ball the Mariners hit at greater than 100 mph in the air. It could have easily gone for extra bases, but was hit more or less directly at Springer. He simply had to make a solid, though not spectacular, play, going back on it to just shy of the warning track.
Cruz’s first plate appearance is most instructive for our purposes. I won’t bore you with the first pitch, a sinker which missed badly low and away. Keuchel came back with a cutter that got in on Cruz’s hands. It’s definitely off the plate, but it’s a strong 1–0 offering to a dangerous righthanded hitter.
Keuchel may be behind 2-0, and he’d prefer to not face Kyle Seager with runners on first and second, but there’s no reason to give in to Cruz. For openers, it’s the first inning. If Keuchel walks Cruz and then Seager, a lefty, smokes an unlikely homer, the Astros have plenty of time to come back. More importantly, though, Keuchel still has options to get out of the inning on Cruz. He goes to one of those, opting for a 2-0 changeup that he spots perfectly low and away. By time Cruz identifies what he thought was a sinker as the pitch it actually is, it’s too late. He taps it to Gurriel, who takes it to the bag unassisted.
One start is exactly that. We don’t want to read too much into what will represent about 3% of what Keuchel does this season. Still, it was encouraging to see a pitcher who looked a lot more like the 2015, Cy Young version of himself than the one who struggled mightily with command all of last year. And also, just give him the Gold Glove already.