- As Game 1 proved, the Yankees hitters have an uphill battle against the Astros' dominant pitching staff.
Houston — About a week after he joined the Astros in a trade from Detroit, while Houston was in Oakland in September, Justin Verlander dared peek behind the curtain of Oz. He dropped in on a magician’s private workshop. Dallas Keuchel was about to throw a bullpen session, and Verlander just had to find out for himself. So he walked out to the bullpen, stood there behind Keuchel, and he watched Keuchel make a baseball move in the manner of a telekinetic with a spoon.
“I always knew he was good,’ Verlander said Friday night. “But I wanted to see it for myself. And then I saw it and understood: I never knew how late his ball moved. It’s amazing.”
There is nobody in baseball like The Amazing Keuchel, and when it comes to pitching against the New York Yankees, nobody alive or dead who ever defused the Bronx Bombers like him. Not only did Keuchel beat New York in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series Friday night with seven shutout innings toward a 2-1 Houston win, but also by extending his career-long domination over the Yankees, he already looms large over Game 5, his next start, which looks like another oh-no game for New York.
In eight career starts against the Yankees, Keuchel has a 1.09 ERA, displacing the mellifluous Jing Johnson (1.51) from a century ago as the biggest Yankee-killer there ever was. More amazement: Keuchel has pitched to 214 Yankees in his career without ever yielding a home run, knocking out ole Swarthmore grad Curly Ogden (195, from 1923-26) as the best at keeping the Yankees in the park. We’re talking really old school stuff.
Keuchel threw 109 pitches Friday night. Every one of them was below the speed of an average big league fastball (93 mph). Only one of them was above the strike zone, and only another seven were in the upper third of the strike zone. It’s crazy to think that Keuchel can be so good with hardly ever changing the eye level of a hitter.
“Oh, no, he changes eye levels,” said Verlander, who then pointed from mid-thigh to the ground. “He changes from here to here.”
Imagine if Keuchel were pitching to a French door. All but the bottom row of windows would be perfectly safe. The kickplate would get destroyed. How can you pitch down almost exclusively for an entire night and still throw shutout baseball? Keuchel explained it to me the night before his start with three words: “Short and late.”
It’s not a George Costanza skit. It’s the name Keuchel devised for his craft, and the kind of secret intelligence Verlander discovered in the bullpen session in Oakland. Keuchel is not interested in stretching the strike zone vertically. He wants to stretch it horizontally. He does this by making his mad hatter’s collection of sinkers, cutters, sliders and changeups move “short and late.” That is, he doesn’t want his pitches to move much, which can make them harder to control and require an early start to their break (which can make them more recognizable). He wants the pitches to move “short,” or just a little bit, and as “late” as possible, so that what look like strikes on a hitter’s barrel suddenly become balls out of the zone and off the barrel.
“I don’t want crazy movement,” he said. “Short and late is what I want. What I’m trying to do is alter the hitter’s perception of the strike zone horizontally. For instance, if I get the cutter in to a righty and get him thinking about that ball in, when I throw the sinker away he’s lost perception of where the outside edge of the strike zone is. So when I throw a ball out there and off the plate, he’s guessing as to whether it’s on the plate. What I’m trying to do is turn the 17-inch plate into a 21-inch plate in the hitter’s eyes.”
Keuchel absolutely blows up the idea of great pitchers “pounding the zone.” He skirts it.
Pitchers who throw a lot of pitches out of the strike zone are considered inconsistent pitchers with command problems. Among the five starters who throw the most pitches out of the zone are Wade Miley, Blake Snell, Jose Urena and Hyun-Jin Ryu, none of who have contended for a Cy Young Award or are likely to do so soon. But number two on that list is your 2015 Cy Young Award winner, Keuchel, who throws 58 percent of his pitches out of the zone.
Now you start to understand the magic. Keuchel is the second “worst” pitcher in baseball at pounding the zone and he has lowest average fastball velocity of any conventional pitcher to win the Cy Young Award (89.6) since Brandon Webb in 2006. And yet for the second time, he shut out the Yankees in a postseason start of at least six innings, something only Art Nehf (1921, 1923) and Lew Burdette (1957) ever did. More musty, tweedy old-school stuff.
“I thought he was great,” pitching coach Brent Strom said. “He has a game plan and he sticks to it. Once in a while he would try something. He elevated a pitch to [Starlin] Castro, and Castro got a base hit. He wanted to try something. But otherwise, he did what he wanted.
“Tonight he got more strikeouts (10) than usual, but he gets groundballs and pop-ups. He speeds up your bat and then he slows it down. I think he only threw one changeup the whole night. He would work that cutter inside, and then go to his old bread and butter, the sinker down and away.”
By the end of the night the Yankees had stretched the plate in their minds to more than 21 inches. Manager A.J. Hinch pulled Keuchel after his longest work night (by pitches) since April.
“He fought us about coming out,” Strom said. “No question. He always does. He doesn’t want to come out. That’s the other thing that makes him so great. He’s a gamer. That guy’s a real [tough guy].”
He meant [tough guy] in the best possible way.
By now the Yankees know that when they face Keuchel their own starting pitcher had better be on point. Masahiro Tanaka did pitch well, but two runs in the fourth marred an otherwise clean game for him.
Jose Altuve reached on an infield single in the scoreless game and swiped second on a 1-1 pitch that was a ball. At that point, ahead in the count with Altuve at second, shortstop Carlos Correa remembered all the pregame homework he did in the video room. When Tanaka falls behind with runners in scoring position, Correa said to himself, he goes soft.
For instance, on all 2-and-1 counts to righthanded hitters, Tanaka throws only 17 percent fastballs. So Correa “sat soft,” that is, he looked for an off-speed pitch.
Tanaka obliged, throwing a slider that the astute Correa whacked for a single to drive in Altuve. Two batters later, Yuri Gurriel knocked in Correa with a single off an 0-1 fastball. Houston saw a feisty Tanaka, but a different one from the swing-and-miss pitcher he has been recently.
Tanaka’s best pitch is his wipeout splitter, a pitch he threw 35 percent of the time in his previous three starts, allowing only three hits on his 69 splitters. In ALDS Game 3, the Indians swung 24 times at his 36 splitters, and they whiffed 12 times on those swings.
The splitter is an effective pitch not only for its late sink, but also for its rarity. Hitters see splitters just 1.5 percent of all the pitches they see. Batting coaches don’t throw it. Pitching machines don’t throw it. Hitters are not familiar with hitting it and can’t train to hit it. Or can they?
I asked Houston DH Carlos Beltran before ALCS Game 1 how you go about preparing to face such a rare pitch. He told me what he would do before the game, and what he would tell his teammates to do. He would go to the indoor batting cage and readjust the height of the fastballs coming out of the pitching machine. Normally he will take swings against pitches that are low strikes – just above the knee. But before Game 1 Beltran adjusted the machine to have it throw pitches at least belt high. Why practice against higher strikes?
“If that pitch is coming in here,” Beltran said, pointing to where he normally would calibrate the machine, “and it’s a splitter, it’s going to dive down. That’s the pitch you have to stay off. So I raise the height of the pitch because I want to train my eyes to look for the pitch up, and to stay off the pitch down. Seeing pitch after pitch there, I’m training my line of sight for the pitches that I want. I have to see the ball up.”
If Keuchel is the team magician, Beltran is the team Yoda. He is the best on the club at finding any tells and patterns that pitchers might give away. For 30 to 60 minutes before every game, Beltran barricades himself in the video room to look for any giveaways from a pitcher—the turn of a glove, the raising of a shoulder, anything.
“We have video from every angle you can think of,” he said, smiling with the glee of a safecracker.
Teammates flock to him for such deep knowledge. In this case, they heard what to do about Tanaka’s splitter. And what they did was take away Tanaka’s best pitch.
For the most part, the Astros spit on the splitter. Tanaka threw only 16 of them, the fewest he has thrown since the All-Star break. They swung and missed only twice, the fewest since Aug. 9.
The two biggest home run teams in baseball are in the ALCS, but think about what the Astros did Friday night. They scored two runs and had no extra-base hits. When teams do that in the postseason they lose 89 percent of the time (27-212). The Astros had won only one playoff game, back in 1981 against the Dodgers with Joe Niekro on the mound, with so small an offensive output.
Yet against those odds these Astros won the game. They turned just six singles into a 1-0 lead in the ALCS, with Verlander getting the ball in Game 2.
Keuchel and Verlander will start four of the first six games in this series. The Yankees cannot win this series unless they win one of the games started by Keuchel or Verlander. Their first chance is gone. The Astros won it with nothing but singles because Keuchel faced 26 batters and allowed only six of his 109 pitches to even leave the infield.
Magic? Nah. The Yankees have seen it before. It was just The Amazing Keuchel doing his thing: the unique wonder of “short and late.”