Archive for Astros

The Nature of Dallas Keuchel’s Contact

Dallas Keuchel won a Cy Young last night, becoming the second pitcher in as many seasons to complete the two-year transition of “some guy with a 5.15 ERA” to “American League Cy Young Award winner.” Keuchel’s career turnaround, as was Corey Kluber‘s, is absolutely remarkable, though the similarities between the two elite hurlers mostly end there.

Kluber, of course, is a righty, while Keuchel throws left-handed. You think of the way Kluber pitches, and you think of all the strikeouts. You think of the way Keuchel pitches, and you think of all the ground balls. Granted, Kluber gets his grounders, and Keuchel started getting his whiffs this year, too, but their primary methods of success lie on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Despite what FIP may lead you to believe, contact management is a real skill that certain pitchers have. Sure, the ability to miss bats entirely is a more reliable skill, and if you had to take one over the other you’d take the whiffs over the weak contact. But some pitchers miss bats, and some pitchers miss barrels. The best pitchers in the world do both, and that’s how Dallas Keuchel got to where he is today.

The whiffs are easy to see. The pitcher throws the amazing curveball and the batter tries to hit it but doesn’t. That’s a whiff. Do that a bunch of times and you have a bunch of whiffs. Soft contact isn’t quite as obvious. I mean, we can see it when it happens, but how? Why did the ball come off the bat like that? I know this is something people struggle with, grasping what it is exactly that a pitcher does to consistently generate weak contact. I’ve seen it asked in chats, live blogs, on Twitter and in comment sections. Understandably so. There’s only one kind of whiff. There’s like a million different ways the ball can come off the bat.

That being said, there’s plenty of ways we can examine the nature of Keuchel’s contact-management game. For now, we’ll stick to one.

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The Best Changeups of the Year by Shape and Speed

No, we aren’t just going to do a leaderboard sort for best movement in each direction and call it a day. It’s a little bit more complicated to figure out the best changeups by shape and speed, mostly because it’s all relative. The changeup, as the name implies, functions off of the fastball, as a change of pace and movement. So we need to define anything the changeup does relative to the pitcher’s fastball.

Then we can do a sort and call it a day.

In order to define fastball movement, let’s just group together all of the fastballs thrown by a pitcher. It’s probably more nuanced than that; the concept of tunneling or sequencing shows that pitchers can pair their changeup with one fastball or the other for different results. But some of this comes out in the wash: by averaging movement across fastballs, their selection of different fastballs will weight the movement in the direction of the pitcher’s usage.

So then our x and y movement, and velocity, are defined against this average fastball for each pitcher. Using a minimum of 50 changeups thrown, and z-scores to sum up the values, we can get a list of best changeups quickly.

First, the relievers.

Best Reliever Changeups by Movement, Velocity
Pitcher FB (pfx_x) FB (pfx_z) FB (velo) CH (pfx_x) CH (pfx_y) CH (velo) Sum Z CH swSTR%
Brad Boxberger -3.3 10.6 92.6 -7.8 2.0 79.8 6.7 14%
Shawn Tolleson -2.6 11.0 92.9 -4.8 4.0 79.8 4.9 15%
Josh Fields 0.1 11.5 94.1 -0.6 3.7 81.4 4.5 8%
Roberto Osuna -4.2 10.7 95.5 -8.0 6.9 82.3 4.0 16%
Josh Smith -4.1 7.6 89.9 -8.4 1.9 79.4 4.0 8%
Chasen Shreve 7.3 10.6 91.4 6.3 1.5 82.6 3.5 18%
A.J. Ramos -3.0 8.6 92.4 -7.5 1.0 85.5 3.5 35%
Jeff Ferrell -4.1 10.2 93.0 -7.4 4.9 82.4 3.5 20%
Danny Farquhar -5.0 8.5 92.7 -7.5 1.0 84.5 3.2 24%
Fernando Rodney -6.7 7.1 94.7 -9.6 3.3 82.7 3.1 17%
Andrew Schugel -7.9 7.8 91.6 -9.6 2.3 80.5 3.1 23%
Joaquin Benoit -6.5 8.9 94.2 -7.5 1.9 84.1 3.1 24%
Tyler Thornburg -0.8 11.1 92.2 -5.8 6.3 83.8 3.0 19%
Arnold Leon -5.1 9.8 91.6 -4.6 2.8 80.2 2.9 22%
Pat Neshek -8.5 4.9 89.9 -4.6 3.7 68.4 2.9 9%
Tommy Kahnle -1.9 7.4 94.8 -7.6 2.8 87.2 2.8 23%
Mike Morin -4.7 8.9 92.3 -0.5 6.8 71.7 2.8 25%
Deolis Guerra -5.1 10.0 90.8 -6.7 4.0 80.7 2.8 15%
Daniel Hudson -6.6 8.3 96.0 -9.9 4.9 84.8 2.7 18%
Erik Goeddel -3.9 9.2 93.0 -4.7 2.0 84.3 2.5 32%
pfx_x = horizontal movement
pfx_z = vertical movement
Sum Z = sum of the z-scores for the differentials between fastball and changeups in x, y movement and velocity
swSTR% = swinging strikes over pitches for the changeup
Minumum 50 changeups thrown in 2015

If you listen to The Sleeper and The Bust, you know I talk about this all the time and do the math in my head. Now the math is there for us on the sheet of paper.

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More Than a Curveball: Making Collin McHugh

“When the Mets drafted me, I had a sinker and a decent curveball,” the Astros’ Collin McHugh told me earlier this year. If you wanted to be reductive, he’s still almost all fastball and curveball — those pitches make up 96% of his repertoire this year, after all — but being reductive robs all the nuance out of how McHugh has become who he is today. The Astros’ Game Five starter has learned a lot about his craft as he’s bounced his way around the league, and it will all be on display on a national stage with Houston’s season on the line.

After joining the New York system, McHugh learned that he had to ditch his slider at first. “I had a slider and curveball in college, and the two started to get too close together,” he said of arriving in Kingsport. “I did away with the slider in pro ball. My curveball is my out pitch, and I need to make sure it is where I want it to be.”

The second-biggest curveball in the game.

Only Jose Quintana and Yordano Ventura got more raw whiffs from their curveball this year than McHugh. Even if you turn it into a rate stat, McHugh does well, with a top-15 whiff rate on the pitch among starters who threw the pitch 300 times. With eight inches of cut and eight inches of drop, only Rick Porcello‘s curve matches McHugh’s for movement in both directions among qualified starters. It’s big, and it’s beautiful.

Of course, a curve and a fastball are more than a buck short of 200 innings in the major leagues, so he knew he had to find something to add back in. “Once I’m good with that,” McHugh remembered thinking, “I’ll start working on something else.” So he started taking his fastball, offsetting it a bit, and “throwing it hard as I could.” The result: a cut fastball.

The cutter gave him a second weapon, a hard breaking ball that got almost as many whiffs as a slider. The pitch drops a whopping eleven inches less than his curve, and goes 14 ticks faster, effectively making batters cover in and out horizontally as well as up and down vertically when it came to his secondary pitches.

The cutter that gave McHugh the second out pitch he needed.

Especially lefties, even if the curve was already a weapon. “Anything that breaks plane as much as a slower breaking ball does, that makes hitter from that side of the plate has to respect up and down instead of just in to out, it makes it tougher on them,” McHugh said of using the curve against lefties. Big curves like his traditionally have reverse platoon splits, meaning they are more effective against opposite-handed batters than you’d expect.

The cutter is also effective against lefties, even if proving this in the numbers has been difficult due to the nebulous nature of the cutter. “Is it a breaking ball or a fastball?” agreed McHugh as he laughed.

But McHugh started with a true cut fastball as he approached the big league team in New York. “When I first started throwing it, it was specifically a cutter, it was always a cutter, that’s what I wanted it to be,” McHugh remembered. “To lefties, make it a little flat, and find that spot right at the belt.”

While the curve makes the lefty respect up and down, the cutter keeps them from getting extension and showing their power in another dimension: in and out. “It’s just something to keep guys from getting extension on you, which, as a righty to a lefty hitter, it’s always been our issue, lefty extension, whether it’s extension down here or away there. That’s where power comes from.”

Lefties show power low and in and out over the plate against righties.

Still. Armed with a cutter, a curve, and a sinker, McHugh debuted with the Mets in 2012 and… did poorly. A 7.59 ERA in just over 20 innings that also featured five home runs must have turned the team on his future, as they traded him to Colorado for Eric Young, who had been designated for assignment.

Colorado was a terrible place for a pitcher with a sinker and a curve. “When I got to Colorado, when I first trying to pitch there, I couldn’t get my ball to sink,” sighed McHugh. “That was a challenge.” A challenge that’s been well documented, but a challenge nonetheless.

But pitching there allowed something to crystallize in McHugh that he’d been thinking about when it came to his fastball. His sinker was getting crushed, whether it was at home or away, New York or Colorado. Something was wrong.

He started throwing the four-seam more, and not only because the sinker wasn’t sinking. “Make it look as fast as possible,” he said of his newer fastball philosophy. “Work it up-down. A fastball down, the perceived velocity is slower than a fastball up. A fastball moving, the perceived velocity is slower than a straight fastball. When I’m trying to throw sinkers down, my 89-91 mph looked — especially to a lefty — like 85-87 mph.”

Watching a mediocre sinker, thrown away, lefties got all kinds of a look at the pitch. They could extend on it, and it just looked crushable. So in came the four-seam, and when Houston claimed the pitcher off of waivers from Colorado, they agreed. Astros pitching coach Brent Strom “basically told me, I think you should use your four-seamer more,” laughed McHugh.

The right fastball for McHugh.

Houston wasn’t happy with just throwing it more, though. They wanted the pitcher to elevate it and work on showing more “ride” or “rise” — the riding fastball drops less than you’d expect, given gravity. More fastball spin leads to more rise, and his new team was fluent in this sort of stuff. “They talk about spin rate, in the organization, but not in the way of getting more,” said McHugh. “They talk about how it helps or affects what you do. Like, Vincent Velasquez throws a high-spin-rate fastball, how does that affect what he does?”

The task put in front of McHugh was more simple. Elevate the four-seam. The rise will come. While Curt Schilling said you want to slap the seams for rise, and Sean Doolittle talked about his hands and release points, and Phil Hughes talked about keeping a stiff wrist, McHugh felt that gaining that vertical movement on the fastball was a matter of intention:

The way I started out being able to do it was thinking about long toss. You’re playing long toss with the catcher from 60 feet the same way as if you were out playing long toss at 180 feet. You’re trying to throw the ball through them, you’re not trying to throw the ball down the mound. Get that extension. You can throw the ball 180 feet when you get down into it, as long as you get that backspin. The mound makes you want to get on top of the ball. Some people do an eye level thing. I want to do everything the same but long-toss through the umpire’s mask.

McHugh added over three inches of rise, and a better weapon against same-handed batters. “It’s an out pitch against righties,” admitted McHugh. “Especially to power righties, you want to deny extension, so you throw the four-seamer which acts like a left-handed cutter.” Against righties, McHugh’s rising four-seam gets 56% more whiffs than your average four-seamer. That whiff rate would also put him between Matt Harvey and Clayton Kershaw on the four-seam leaderboard, which is somewhat amazing considering he barely cracks 90 mph on average with it.


If the Mets taught him to focus on the curveball, Colorado told him to ditch the sinker, and Houston coached or coaxed rise out of his four-seamer, it was some combination of the three that helped him refine his cutter. “The more I’ve gotten the feel for it, the more I’ve been able to do both with it,” McHugh said. “To righties, I can make it more of a slider with some depth now.”

McHugh does this by manipulating the cutter’s release and the grip slightly. For the true, flatter cutter, he’ll “really try to get on top of the ball.” For the deeper slider, he’ll pick up the index finger a little bit, and “hook” the fingers a bit more around the seams.

McHugh moves his fingers slightly and changes focus to get more slider movement from his cutter grip.

When asked if these small alterations affected his ability to command the pitch, McHugh shrugged, even as he admitted that it’s been a little tougher to get depth on his slider to righties this year than last year. “It’s just a matter of focus,” the Astro said. “You focus on what you want the pitch to do.”

That’s a bit of a mantra for him. Focus is what helped him continue to develop in the face of bad results and an uncertain future in baseball. Focus helped him incorporate the best advice from each organization he was with. Focus on improving his pitches helped him learn more about how pitches are perceived and how he could best make use of his skillset.

And it was focus that helped him turn two pitches into four — with a rising fastball, a slider, a cutter, and a curveball, he’s much harder to face these days than he was back with the Mets in 2012. “If they can figure out what pitch you are going to throw in what count, they can figure you out,” he thought. “But if you have four pitches you can throw in any count, they aren’t going to figure you out.”

JABO: The Double Play That Wasn’t

After getting a pair of home runs and an RBI double from superstar rookie shortstop Carlos Correa, the Astros took a 6-2 lead into the top of the eighth inning. Protecting a four run lead just six outs to go, Houston had a 96.8% chance of winning, which would have put advanced them to the ALCS to await the winner of the Blue Jays/Rangers series.

Then Will Harris gave up consecutive singles to Alex Rios, Alcides Escobar, Ben Zobrist, and Lorenzo Cain, as the Royals singled their way back into the game. With the go-ahead run suddenly at the plate, the Astros turned to left-hander Tony Sipp to go after Eric Hosmer, but Hosmer continued the single streak, plating another run and keeping the bases loaded. The lead was down to 6-4 and the tying run was in scoring position, with Kendrys Morales, the team’s most productive hitter this year, stepping to the plate. The team’s chances of winning had fallen to 55.6%.

But even with the Royals roaring back and Morales a quality hitter, there was also some upside to the at-bat. Morales is a double play machine, frequently hitting ground balls with men on base, and lacking the speed to prevent the opponents from turning two on just about any ball hit on the infield. Morales hit in 24 double plays this year, fifth most in baseball, and if Sipp could just get him to keep the ball on the infield, the Astros could put the comeback to a halt in a hurry.

Sipp did his job, and Morales did exactly what the Royals did not what him to do; hit a one-hop bouncer back to the mound. But everything that happened after Morales hit the ball is a reminder of just how small the differences can be between winning and losing.

Sipp just missed fielding the ball himself, and if he had gloved it cleanly, that’s a 1-2-3 double play, cutting down both the run at the plate and Morales at first base. That would have been the most perfect outcome the Astros could have hoped for, but the ball ricocheted off Sipp’s glove and out to shortstop.

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How the Royals Cheated Death

Well, it happened again.


I don’t need to remind you what happened last September 30, because it was one of the more memorable playoff games of our era. And then Monday, the same thing and the same team repeated. Many of the specific details weren’t alike, but the feelings were all the same — a game that was effectively over, followed by a sense of witnessing the improbable. A year ago, the Royals rallied two times. Monday, they rallied just once. Yet the odds they faced at the lowest points were similar, and thus similar odds were overcome. It doesn’t take long to develop a reputation for this. Luke Gregerson must find the Royals unkillable.

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The Astros Are the New Royals

Did you hear the news? Last postseason, the Royals made quite a name for themselves. In the midst of their first playoff run in 30 years, Kansas City carved out their own brand of baseball. For the first time in a long time, “Royals baseball” meant something positive, something exciting, something worth watching. The Royals captured our hearts until the final out of Game 7, with their unique blend of speed, defense and a dominant bullpen — a postseason formula that had long lurked in the shadows of the traditional power pitching and power hitting approaches.

Did you hear the news? What’s written above still holds true, but there’s a new Royals in town. You might not have heard about them, because they haven’t yet made their feel-good World Series run that still only has something like a 1-in-3 chance of actually materializing. Also, the Old Royals are still here and they’re still quite good, and these New Royals don’t quite feel like the Old Royals, but that’s just on the surface. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that the Houston Astros are the New Royals.


The Astros are the New Royals because of their speed. Did you know the Astros had speed? I’m not even talking about Triples King, Evan Gattis. No, I’m talking about real speed. Did you know the Astros stole 121 bases this year? Most in the American League and 17 more than the Old Royals?

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How the Astros Wound Up With a Bigger Zone

In a way, it felt like the Yankees were lifeless. Few fans expressed surprise when the team was ultimately shut out, given the way the offense had gone of late. The season is over, but it’s over by a narrower margin than it might seem. The Astros scored their first two runs with two swings, and the third scored on what could be best described as an accident. Neither team on Tuesday was dominant, and you can only wonder how it might’ve gone had the Yankees gotten another break or two. That’s the sort of thinking that gets people talking about the strike zone.

It was a story during the game, and it remained a story after the fact. Here’s a post by Dave on the matter. Perception was that Astros pitchers worked with a more favorable zone than Yankees pitchers did, and while a few pitches here and there didn’t make all of the difference, they certainly could’ve made some difference. Based on the evidence, it does indeed look like the Astros benefited more. A quick glance at the Brooks Baseball zone charts shows me the Astros benefiting by six or seven strikes, comparatively speaking. That’s a big enough margin to notice, and it deserves an explanation. Those of you in favor of an automated strike zone might well want to just skip the rest of this.

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Dallas Keuchel and the Heart

It should be pretty well understood that there isn’t one “right” way to pitch. Some pitchers succeed by throwing curveballs, others with changeups. One may get by with grounders, while another flourishes with fly balls. Corey Kluber works out of the zone for whiffs, and Bartolo Colon bombards it for balls in play. Every pitcher is different. It’s important to find what fits one’s unique style, and stick to it.

Dallas Keuchel has found what works for him. And he’d never looked less like himself in Tuesday’s superb Wild Card start than on his final pitch of the evening:
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Carlos Correa’s Rookie Season Hints at Greatness

The 2015 season has been chock-full of high-profile rookie debuts. From Kris Bryant to Corey Seager to Noah Syndergaard, I’ve certainly had no shortage of players to write about. But the most impressive rookie campaign — at least on a per-game basis — might very well belong to Carlos Correa, who’s developing into a superstar right before our eyes. Although he’s completed just his age-20 season, Correa’s been one of the best better hitters in the game since the Astros called him up on June 8th. His 133 wRC+ was the 28th best among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances this year, and second best among rookies, trailing only Kris Bryant. By the barometer of WAR per 150 games, Correa ranked 21st in baseball with mark of 5.2.

You probably didn’t need me to tell you that Carlos Correa’s been really good. This isn’t exactly news. So rather than dwelling on how good Correa is now, I want to consider what his impressive rookie campaign means for his short- and long-term future.

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Why Dallas Keuchel Should Fear Chris Young Most

Talking about matchups in a one-game playoff is an almost futile enterprise. Batter versus pitcher numbers have proven to be mostly useless, and other than a perusal of the platoon situations, a discussion of roster decisions around the edges, and some tinkering with the order in which you throw your pitchers, previewing Tuesday’s American League Wild Card game seems like heavy-breathing about the pre-game coin toss in football.

There is one way you can classify pitchers and hitters that may be meaningful to this game in particular, however. Because of the way swings work, there are matchup problems for certain hitters against certain pitchers. Most of the research says that extreme ground ball pitchers have problems with fly ball hitters — one study found fly ball hitters had better outcomes against ground-ball pitchers than any other matchup of batted ball mixes, and another found that this type of matchup produces the most line drives in baseball. And it makes sense, because fly ball hitters usually have ‘uppercut’ type swings that can reach down and produce power on the low pitch.

Dallas Keuchel has the second-best ground-ball rate in baseball. The Yankees should have Chris Young bat leadoff.

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The Player Who’s Most Hurt the Astros

Last night, the Astros lost, and for the first time since May 15, they find their playoff odds below 50%. They have but four remaining games to re-claim playoff position, and, I’m sure you’ve had a good sense of their struggles. A 10-16 September has dropped their playoff odds from 97% to 44%. It’s dropped their division-winning odds from 88% to 3%. It took so long to get used to the idea of the Astros advancing to the postseason, and then it felt like a given for weeks. Now people are starting to think about big-picture perspectives, like how it’s still been a great season regardless of whether it ends in a few days. That’s true, but it’s also not what Astros fans thought they’d be having to consider at the end of September.

In a certain sense, these struggles have been almost team-wide. While the position players rank third in baseball in September WAR and third in September wRC+, they’re also 22nd in Win Probability Added, owing to some lousy timing. Astros starters rank 18th in WPA, neither good nor bad. The bullpen, meanwhile, ranks 27th in WPA. The Astros have had several issues, but a once-reliable bullpen has been a big one. And within that bullpen, one arm in particular has come apart at the worst possible time.

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The AL Cy Young Discussion

Last week, I addressed the Cy Young battle in the senior circuit and titled it “The NL Cy Young Showdown.” This time, it’s the AL’s turn — and “discussion” (as opposed to “showdown”) seems to be the proper way to characterize it. It’s been a low-key pitching season, comparatively, in the AL, with no one posting an ERA near Zack Greinke‘s, or pitching no-hitters or engaging in zany second-half shenanigans like Jake Arrieta. In fact, a general consensus seems to be building that the award is David Price‘s to lose. Today, let’s have a full discussion, including utilization of batted-ball data, about the AL Cy Young and its three likely frontrunners, Price, Chris Sale and Dallas Keuchel.

Price, who turned 30 in late August, is the only one of the three with a Cy (2012) on his mantle, though he hasn’t finished above sixth in the annual voting since then. Sale has come progressively closer in the voting, checking in at sixth, fifth and third in the last three seasons, while this will be the first time on a ballot for Keuchel, 2015’s foremost pitching breakthrough.

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Sneaking Up on the Competition With Carlos Correa

Astros shortstop Carlos Correa turned 21 years old just three days ago. That would have been a much more dramatic opening line if we weren’t living through the Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado Era, but it’s a relatively dramatic opening nonetheless. Correa has looked like one of MLB’s premier players over his first 90 games and 390 plate appearances all while being younger than Bryce Harper. And Bryce Harper is very young.

It’s not much of a surprise that Carlos Correa is a great baseball player. In fact, Correa was supposed to be a great player. He was taken first overall by the Astros in 2012, and while some people saw it as a way to free up money for later picks, no one disputed him as a top-level draft target. Correa’s been an elite prospect his entire career, occupying the fifth spot on Kiley’s Top 200 entering the season, and the third spot on the Baseball Prospectus and ESPN (Insider) lists.

The particularly remarkable aspect of Correa’s 2015 season is not that he’s hitting 32% better than league average or that he’s gathered 3.1 WAR in under 400 plate appearances; the remarkable part is that he’s doing so in 2015. While Correa’s potential was widely acknowledged, no one really seemed to expect it to arrive so soon. Kiley filed a report on him in October of 2014, giving him present Hit and Game Power grades of 20 to go along with a “2017 ETA.”

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Josh Fields and the Value of Faith and Positive Thinking

Over the last calendar year, Houston righty Josh Fields has been a top-30 reliever. That may not be the type of lede that grabs you by your collar and shakes a click out of you, but the “how” might intrigue you. Because Fields has changed one thing — a new pitch has helped — but it’s something that he changed mentally that really made the difference. And his faith had everything to do with that change.

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Making an MVP out of Dallas Keuchel

If I were writing this piece five years ago, the entire premise of the article would seem contrived. Only two pitchers won MVP awards between 1986 and 2010, and no pitcher had won since 1992. Pedro Martinez led the AL by four wins in 1999 (although only 2.5 using RA9-WAR) and didn’t win the MVP. But thanks to Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw, voters have begun to acknowledge that pitchers are baseball players who are eligible for baseball player awards, so they’re worth considering in our MVP discussions.

Attempt, if you can, to remember April 2014. Entering last season, Dallas Keuchel had thrown just 239 major league innings over two years. He was entering his age-26 season, so he had youth on his side, but he had pitched to a 130 ERA- and 120 FIP-. He gave up home runs, didn’t strike batters out at an impressive rate, and allowed an average-ish number of free passes. Perhaps you may have seen some potential in the lefty who managed a 90 xFIP- in 2013, but the odds of him turning the corner and becoming an ace were long.

Yet here we are. The emergence of Keuchel as an ace isn’t a new story. He spun a 3.8 WAR season in 2014 (4.9 RA9-WAR) and while most people expected him to be respectable but not great in 2015, he responded by elevating his strikeout rate and leading the Astros into their real first pennant race in a decade.

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The Catcher Is Watching You

As Melvin Upton steps to the plate and readies for the pitch, Buster Posey appraises him. First, he looks at his feet as they dig in. Gradually, his eyes move up Upton’s body, brazenly staring as he takes in information. Down pops the sign as the catcher moves his attention to the pitcher.

It’s not just idle ogling. He’s looking for clues. Which ones?

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How the Rangers Have Gained on the Astros

In a very short while, the Rangers and the Astros will kick off a crucial four-game series, with the AL West up for grabs. There will be three more meetings between the teams after this series is complete, so any mistakes can be made up for, but this race is coming down to the wire. It’s currently the closest race of the divisions, and while the Rangers are already close at 1.5 games back, they were literally inches away from an even smaller deficit before the Astros rallied past the Angels on Sunday. The Astros know they can lose their position. The Rangers know it’s theirs for the taking.

In a lot of ways, this isn’t what people expected. Even just several weeks ago, by which point we’d come to believe in the Astros, the Rangers didn’t look like a threat. After the games on July 31, the Astros were up two games on the Angels, and seven games on the Rangers. The Rangers’ odds of winning the division were a hair below 2%. Now they’re a little above 22%, gaining about a game on the Astros a week. Since the beginning of August, the Rangers have gone 25-15, second-best in the AL. Since the same point, the Astros have gone 19-20, sandwiched between the Yankees and the Rays. What’s happened to cause the Astros to lose much of their advantage?

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Let’s Watch an Improbable Astros Comeback

The Nationals aren’t mathematically dead, and there are several reasons for why they’re so far behind the Mets, but if you want to say the Nationals’ season died one day, you could point to the game they lost to the Mets after leading 7-1. Here’s that win expectancy graph, and you can see that, for Washington, it topped out at 99.2%. That game was absolutely devastating. That game all but sealed the dueling narratives. It can also get worse.

Source: FanGraphs

Sunday, Astros, Angels. The lead was three, not six. It was a game between first and third place, not first and second. But the Angels’ win expectancy topped out at 99.7%. They had the Astros down to their last strike. The Angels find themselves now behind 4.5 games, not 2.5. And the rally itself was almost inconceivable, even independent of the context. This would’ve been a dramatic conclusion in a game between the Braves and an area college. Let’s watch the meat of the top of the ninth inning. Some of you already know everything that happened, but those who don’t really need to.

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Evan Gattis Is Almost Unrecognizable

I’ve written about a few changes like this lately. I wrote about Ryan Goins, whose hot streak coincided with a new unwillingness to swing the bat. I wrote about Joey Votto, whose Bonds-esque second half has come with greater discipline and a preference for very particular strikes. In Goins’ case, the analysis was done in response to improved performance. In Votto’s case, the analysis was done in response to improved performance. There’s nothing quite like that here, no red-hot offensive tear commanding broader attention. Maybe that’s still to come, but I think the observation is interesting enough regardless of everything else.

Evan Gattis is patient now. He’s not Joey Votto-patient. He’s not Matt Carpenter-patient. His patience is relative, but compared to what he’s been, this is a whole different type of hitter. As always, you have to wonder how much of this is actually nothing. Sometimes the numbers we look at aren’t reflective of any deeper truths. But this isn’t based on outcome data. This isn’t based on the usual things that bounce around. This is about swinging. Hitters who like to swing will swing; hitters who like to wait will wait. Gattis has been a swinger. Now Gattis is more of a waiter. This is interesting because of how unexpected it has been.

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Hitters: Quit Chopping Wood, Don’t Go for Backspin

Around little-league parks, and even on the back fields of certain schools and organizations, you might hear a common refrain from the batting cages. “Chop wood, chop wood,” is how Bryce Harper mimics the coaches he’s heard before. The idea is that a quick, direct path to the baseball — like an ax chop — is the best way to get quickly to the ball and create the backspin that fuels the power.

Turns out, pretty much all of that is wrong.

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