Reading Between The Seams: Keuchelangelo’s Swan Song (Part 4 of 6)

Leading Off

Though he first became a mainstream fixture in the collective consciousness of Astros fans in 2014, Dallas Keuchel actually debuted with the team in 2012 and, thanks to a couple of really lean years early on when wins were almost as rare as Yuli Gurriel walks, has posted a won-loss record of 64-52 (after all, wins and losses are more of a reflection on the quality of the team than of the quality of the pitcher) over the course of 984.2 innings pitched. His first start of the 2018 season – the second game of the season, breaking Keuchel’s personal streak of three straight Opening Day starts – will be his 150th start with the franchise that drafted and devloped him, and it will kick off a season that could potentially be his last in Houston.

As for his true performance, he was once again great in 2017, even though he did miss significant time once again with injuries in his age-29 season last year. Those injuries included a pair of 10-day disabled list stints for neck discomfort, and the revelation that came over the offseason that he pitched through a foot injury for the last half of the 2017 season and the playoffs. In spite of his second straight injury-plagued year, Keuchelangelo posted typical strikeout (7.72 K/9, 21.4 K%, 13.4 K-BB%) numbers to accompany his usual extremely-high groundball percentage (66.8%) and soft contact (24.5%) rates. Keuchel continued to manage walks well (though he did suffer a slight uptick over years past, up to 2.90 BB/9) and ostensibly only missed out on his fourth straight Gold Glove award due to the fact that he didn’t qualify, having pitched only 145.2 innings on the season. Of slight concern would be that Keuchel beat his peripherals (his ERA of 2.90 was significantly better than his FIP of 3.79 and his xFIP of 3.32) by a fair amount, and that his BABIP of .256 is pretty low – his xBABIP was .288, and one would be wise to expect some regression in this regard over the coming season.

Long story short, while he wasn’t as good as he was during his 2015 American League Cy Young season, he was very good last season. Now for a look into his armory.

The Arsenal

Dallas Keuchel makes his hay with his sinker, which is one of the very best pitches in all of baseball. It’s even better than the (much more famous) sinker of Zach Britton. When Keuchel had a rough 2016 season while dealing with injuries, the disappearance of his sinker was probably the biggest reason for the struggles. The pitch never abandoned him in 2017, and that’s why he continued to find success even when battling injuries.

Interestingly, the pitch tailed to the arm side less than it has in years past, but Keuchel still elicited an ungodly 76.8% ground ball percentage and held opposing hitters to a .227 batting average against the pitch. As is completely normal for sinkers, the pitch did get hit hard when it was in the zone (ten doubles and eight home runs came against the pitch out of 258 balls in play, or BIP) but it was still an overpoweringly dominant offering for him, in the main.

As for secondary pitches, Keuchel throws a slider 18.78% of the time that eats up left-handed batters and right-handed batters alike, though lefties in particular (.106 batting average and .170 slugging percentage) struggle the most against the slider.

Here’s a gif of Chris Davis doing Chris Davis things:

The pitch has a lot of lateral movement (6 inches more than an average slider) and a lot of drop, and hitters only made contact with it 56.5% of the time and batted .167 against it overall.

Keuchel’s change up, which he throws almost exclusively to right handed batters and throws just under 13% of the time in general, runs hard to Keuchel’s arm side and is one of his pitches that operates often on the periphery (or just outside) the strike zone, resulting in hitters having a difficult time making contact (61.1%) and hitters batted below .200 against it with a hilariously-low .012 ISO:

The final clearly-defined pitch in Keuchel’s tool kit is a cutter, which he uses mostly as a change of pace between the sinker and the slider and which actually gets hit pretty well, relative to Keuchel’s other offerings. A positive about it is that, like everything else that leaves Keuchelangelo’s hand, the pitch gets hit on the ground at a good (54.1%) clip, but hitters posted a .318 batting average against the pitch last year, and the pitch is almost never used against left-handed batters. Here’s a look at it, but there really isn’t much to see:

It isn’t just that hitters make a lot of contact against the cutter…it also gets hit really, really hard. Here’s a plot showing slugging percentage against the pitch, from BrooksBaseball:

Keuchel SLG against cutter

The Road Ahead

Dallas Keuchel is obviously a top-flight starting pitcher and has very little, from a performance standpoint, that he needs to improve upon. If anything, he should cut down the usage of the cut fastball a lot, and certainly he should never throw the decidedly-poor quality pitch in any kind of hitting zone or in a fastball count. The preference for the pitch, if it continues to get used, should probably be to use it to bust right handed hitters in on the hands. That’s probably a pretty minor tweak – otherwise, Keuchel’s only real concern is his ability to stay healthy. Over the last two years, Keuchel has been established (fair or not) to be fairly injury prone, and as a thirty year old, he doesn’t figure to get MORE durable going forward. His contract status in the upcoming offseason (and the Astros’ fortunes, especially in the postseason) largely hinge on his ability to stay at least as healthy as he was last season and at least as efficacious.