Dallas Keuchel, Who Can No Longer Be Ignored

On Monday night, I sat down to watch a presumed pitchers duel featuring successful AL West starters Garrett Richards and Dallas Keuchel, which I suppose says something about both the 2014 baseball season to this point and me as a person. Richards, who’d entered the game with a top-10 FIP in baseball, disappointed, needing 27 pitches to get through a three-run first inning. He managed to avoid a disaster and actually stuck around through seven innings, but allowed 12 base runners, five runs and a mere lone strikeout, if whiffing Chris Carter even counts. I’m sure there’s a good starter in there, but being as this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to really watch him this year, I haven’t seen it yet.

And Keuchel? Well, I’m fairly certain this is the first time we’ve ever written about Keuchel on the main page of FanGraphs. He shut down the Angels on two runs over 8.2 innings for what was very nearly his second career shutout, five days after shutting out the Rangers for his first career shutout. After entering the season with a 5.20 career ERA in 239 innings, he’s now got a 2.92 ERA over the first 61.2 innings of his 2014 — numbers emphatically backed up by a 2.81 FIP and 2.68 xFIP. That xFIP is No. 5 in baseball, tied with Zack Greinke, just ahead of Johnny Cueto and Jon Lester; his swinging-strike percentage is No. 13, right in between Madison Bumgarner and Corey Kluber.

You know what? I think we’re finally going to have to talk about Dallas Keuchel.

It should be noted, first, that while “shut down the Angels on two runs over 8.2 innings” and “has a 2.92 ERA” are both very impressive statements, here’s how close this all came to being even more impressive:

trout_safe

That’s a very blurry Mike Trout running at full speed with two outs in the ninth inning of a 5-0 game to ever so closely beat out a Jose Altuve throw to Jesus Guzman in what was otherwise a game-ending 4-3 putout. That hustle, and the infield grounder that followed to knock Keuchel out of the game, and the triple that Josh Zeid then allowed to Howie Kendrick, prevented me from being able to say “Dallas Keuchel just shut out the Angels and Rangers back-to-back,” and it increased his ERA from 2.63 to 2.92. It prevented Keuchel from joining Cueto, Henderson Alvarez and Martin Perez as the only pitchers with multiple shutouts this year.

But of course, Trout and the failings of Zeid hardly take anything away from Keuchel’s performance, and now we need to figure out just where all of this came from and how he’s making it work. It’s not like he was a highly-touted prospect, selected with the 221st pick in the 2009 draft as a junior out of the University of Arkansas, and never — so far as I can tell — appearing highly on any prospect lists. He never piled up any impressive strikeout numbers in the minors, whiffing 323 in 493 innings. Nor does he throw particularly hard, averaging 90 on his four-seam and his sinker and occasionally touching 92.

So far, we’ve just mentioned what he isn’t great at. Fortunately, Keuchel makes it pretty easy on us to identify how he’s finding the success he’s having, partially by offering a master class in pitching on Monday night. Were you to sit down and construct the things an ideal pitcher would do, it would probably include items like “misses bats,” “gets grounders,” “limits walks,” and “avoids homers.” Against the Angels, very easily defined as one of the better offensive teams in baseball, here’s what Keuchel did:

– Generate 16 swing-and-misses, highest of any pitcher on Monday
– Created 18 grounders, tied for the third-most this year, and keeping with his MLB-best 67.7 GB%
– Allowed three flies, none of which went out
– Allowed one walk, but induced two double plays

It’s really that groundball percentage that stands out, because it’s not just the best mark in baseball this season, it would be the best mark we have from a starter in our database, which has batted ball data back to 2002, topping out a bunch of years from celebrated groundball artists Derek Lowe and Brandon Webb. It’s not particularly difficult to see how he’s generating them, either: just look at his heat map:

keuchel_heat-map

That’s a man with an almost pathological avoidance of the high strike — the kind that, say, a pitcher with a 90 mph fastball might find quickly leaving the park — and it also goes to explain why his Zone percentage of 38.5 is the lowest in baseball among healthy pitchers. There’s a big difference between “being wild” (Francisco Liriano is next on that list) and “throwing a good-looking pitch that isn’t a strike,” hoping the batter will fish for it, and that’s exactly what Keuchel has done — his O-Swing percentage is the third-best in baseball. Masahiro Tanaka, Jose Fernandez, Greinke, and Rick Porcello round out the top five. This is starting to make sense.

That’s great, really. That’s a great way to succeed in the big leagues, but something interesting shows up when you look at the 28 pitcher seasons since 2002 with a GB% above 60 — most of them don’t really pile up strikeouts. They live and die on the grounder. Of the 28, only four had a swinging-strike percentage above 10, and one of those was from Kevin Brown, who doesn’t exactly fit the Lowe mold. Another is from Tim Hudson this season, unlikely (as, fairly, is Keuchel) to maintain both of those numbers all season long. Keuchel is one of them, with an 11.6 SwStr%. He never really got strikeouts in the minors, but he absolutely is in the bigs in 2014.

First, a graph, helpfully created by Dave Cameron, showing how impressive that combination is. This is a comparison of 2014 pitchers in K%-BB% against groundball rate. This is the guts of what goes into xFIP and it’s pretty simple to follow: the higher your K%-BB% is, the better, because you aren’t giving the hitters back what you’ve taken, and groundballs don’t turn into home runs. You might notice the name all the way out there on the right.

keuchel_k-bb-gb

Thus far, we’ve established that keeping the ball down, inducing grounders while collecting strikeouts and avoiding walks and homers, is a pretty wonderful way to win baseball games, which I know is a groundbreaking discovery, but what we haven’t yet done is understand how it is that Keuchel managed to turn himself from a low-strikeout minor-league afterthought into, well, this — how a guy who was terrible in 2012 (5.74 FIP) managed to become mediocre in 2013 (4.25) and wonderful in 2014 (2.81).

There’s some amount of “even Trout didn’t set the world on fire in his first crack at the bigs” in there, no doubt, but there’s also a different pitcher. Take a look at his pitch usage in the bigs and see if anything stands out to you:

keuchel_pitch-types

It’s the red and orange lines you should be focusing on. Keuchel came to the bigs without a slider, instead using a curve to go with his fastball, sinker, change and cutter. And the curve was, to put it kindly, not working out. His swing percentage on the curve was 33.1; swinging-strike was 7.6. A good curve rarely goes for strikes, so he was giving hitters something they didn’t care to swing at, and rarely missed when they did. The slider gets offered at approximately half the time, and missed roughly a quarter of the time. It’s not difficult to see which one offers more value. (Eno Sarris looked into this in detail a month ago at RotoGraphs, noting that the slider is also making Keuchel’s change look better, which is true. We’re also calling it a “slider,” despite the fact that the Houston broadcasters argued about what it really was and what to call it.)

Here’s what that looked like on Monday, against Grant Green, offering little chance of success to the hitter:

keuchel_green_slider

What’s difficult to parse, however, is this: groundballers in front of lousy defensive units can often struggle if their team doesn’t support them. Just go compare Justin Masterson‘s ERA to his FIP/xFIP for proof of that. By just about every metric we have, the Houston defense is terrible. They’re No. 28 in DRS. No. 30 in UZR/150. The team leader in DRS is… Keuchel himself, at 3. Matt Dominguez has a reputation as a very good third basemen, but he’s graded out as mediocre. Altuve isn’t highly thought of in terms of the numbers. Shortstops Jonathan Villar and Marwin Gonzalez aren’t, either. And yet what I saw last night was Altuve flying all over the place, making play after play (though his slow throw on the Trout play arguably cost Keuchel the shutout). My sample size here is “one game,” so I’m not taking my observation over the numbers, but then, I do wonder how Keuchel might have done had the expected Houston defense showed up last night. He probably wouldn’t have carried a shutout into the ninth; but missing bats, avoiding walks and homers — i.e., “the three true outcomes” — doesn’t require the defense’ assistance.

Maybe we should have seen this coming. Keuchel made clear improvements from 2012 to 2013, obscured perhaps by an ugly ERA and an atrocious and unwatchable team, improvements made clear in his FIP/xFIP/SwStr progression. Then again, he got destroyed in three of his four September starts, so it’s not like it was so obvious that we were foolish for missing it. Now he’s made clear improvements from 2013 to 2014, turning him from a guy fighting for a rotation spot to a guy maybe fighting for an All-Star spot. No matter what happens from here, now you know the name Dallas Keuchel, and can associate him with some success. I don’t imagine that was true for most of us just a month ago.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times site, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


42 Responses to “Dallas Keuchel, Who Can No Longer Be Ignored”

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  1. Drew Marshall says:

    Dallas Keuchel pitched at Arkansas. He was an instrumental part to our 2009 College World Series run. As an Arkansas alum, it’s fun to have a guy from your school have such surprising success!

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  2. djmax101 says:

    Last night was probably the most entertaining and impressive pitching performance I’ve seen all season. All the Halos could hit were grounder after grounder. Infield single? Not a problem, next ball in play is a weak grounder turning into a double play. The flaming dumpster that is the Astros bullpen made his final box score look much worse than it actually was.

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  3. benj says:

    I almost threw my drink across the room when they sent him back out in the 9th inning at somewhere north of 110 pitches to face the top of the order.

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  4. triple_r says:

    He never piled up any impressive strikeout numbers in the minors, whiffing 323 in 294 innings.

    If a 9.89 K/9 isn’t impressive, I don’t know what is.

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  5. jbuffn says:

    Not to nitpick, but I think you have his minor league IP wrong, because 323 Ks in 294 IP would be pretty impressive. I got around 521 IP after a quick glance at his player page.

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  6. Bobby Ayala says:

    Great article about a player who deserves more chatter.

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  7. Dennis says:

    The Angels have had pretty good success against left-handed pitching this year too, no? That makes his performance last night even more impressive. And as for the slider/curveball debate, that devastating pitch kind of looks like the very definition of a “slurve” to me — almost like a way more effective version of Cliff Lee’s. It’s got the sweeping horizontal movement of a slider, and the vertical drop reminiscent of a curveball.

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      Yeah. I’ve seen it referred to as a “spike curve.” The HOU tv guys tried to name it last night, ending on sabre, after trying out some lesser names and one really unintentionally awkward one.

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      • jorgesca says:

        kinda looks like Randy Johnson’s slider to me, obviously different from the release point.

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      • Sean says:

        Not only did they have that “awkward” nickname, his name actually isn’t too far. And the Astros also have a player in AAA with the nickname Enrique “Kiké” Hernandez.

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    • CJohnson says:

      Keuchel say his slider is a slurve.

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    • Bip says:

      I’d be comfortable calling it a slider, but it leans towards a slurve. A slider typically has 0-3 inches of vertical movement by PitchFX, and Keuchel’s has -1. A slider is typically thrown in the low 80′s, and Keuchel’s is right around 80. It’s kind of like a less extreme version of Chris Sale’s slider/slurve.

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  8. Thanks, Comcast says:

    Having predator vision when looking at the strike zone probably helps.

    And while he doesn’t throw hard, he has seen about a two MPH uptick in fastball velocity since his 2012 major league debut. He’s to the point where he’s not really lacking for a lefty who relies primarily on his sinker.

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  9. Josh says:

    Do you recommend keuchel over pomeranz? Waivers process tonight .. Or would
    You wait and see depending on how pomeranz performs. Thanks in advance.

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  10. Terence says:

    As someone who watches more Astros games than most, I don’t think the advanced defensive stats are doing a good job of measuring the Astros defensive value. I think they are shifting so much, that either a significant number of plays are ignored and no value is awarded at all, or the slight shifts in positioning are leading to mislabeled and misvalued plays. That first play by Altuve looks like a routine groundball to second in standard buckets, but is obviously a tremendous play. My eyes tell me that Altuve has been better than -4 runs to this point this season, and that the Astros as a team have been better than -40.

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  11. CRPerry13 says:

    I spoke with Keuchel on Friday. I think that Pitch F/X is having trouble labeling his breaking pitch. According to Keuchel, he doesn’t distinguish between his slider and his “slurve” in grip or arm action. But he “throws it tighter” to left handers so it breaks like a slider, and “throws it looser” to RHB so that it breaks more like a slurve. But it’s the same pitch.

    Likewise, my own research has shown that there’s a tunnelling effect going on. New pitching coach reportedly told Keuchel to ditch his true curve, and apparently also to rely more on his 2-seam than his 4-seam. The tunnelling effect works because the fastball, slurve/slider, and curveball all leave his hand and look like the same pitch until well into the trajectory of the pitch. Once the pitch breaks, it’s too late for the batters to adjust, and that’s why he’s generating all the swings-and-misses. So if he can keep up with his command (he’s always had great command) and continues to execute the pitch sequencing they have worked out right now, there’s no reason that his success can’t continue.

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    • CRPerry13 says:

      That was s’posed to be “changeup” not “curveball” in that tunnelling sentence. The change has an identical trajectory to his fastball and slurve, until the late break.

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  12. bjoak says:

    What was frustrating to me was how the game last night was managed. Keuchel had a high pitch count after the seventh. When he came out for the eighth, I was okay with it because of how good he had been, but in that inning, he fell behind every hitter, allowed a hit and got no strikeouts. In fact if the Angels had been a little more patient, they had a lot of potential for walks in the inning.

    I think he was at 115 pitches when he came out for the ninth. He was again falling behind in the count and got the two guys out before allowing a hit and *still* did not come out. I think everyone watching knew Pujols would get a hit, which he did.

    Not only did Keuchel allow two runs more than he needed to, he will likely be ineffective in his next turn due to the ridiculous final pitch count of 128.

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  13. Brian says:

    Ahem accreditation please!
    https://twitter.com/brianpmangan/status/468767773188169731

    Seriously though, great article. Keuchel’s O-Swing % and SwStk% are elite, and his GB% is historic so far.

    His stuff isn’t great, so I am super interested to see how things turn out for him. Whether he’ll keep it up and be great all year or whether he’ll come back to earth now that the book on him is getting out.

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  14. Mike Harper says:

    Keuchel’s SIERA is 2.49 right now, which is around 20 points better than the best mark in baseball, belonging to Matt Harvey. This makes sense with his astounding ground ball rate. I’m wondering why it wasn’t brought up for the article. Could anyone explain that?

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      I don’t really use SIERA.

      Also, Matt Harvey?

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      • Brian says:

        > Matt Harvey

        ?

        :(

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        • Mike Harper says:

          The best mark last year was Matt Harvey, I should have specified. as I understand it, SIERA is heavily reliant on batted ball data in determining a pitcher worth, and according to its page in Fangraphs, it is more predictive than FIP or xFIP. It seems to fit well with the articles point. Great article though.

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  15. Jason Kates says:

    So Keuchel did it again today.

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  16. Johnny C. Lately says:

    What about his recent struggles? I know he’s had a wrist issue but his last 3 starts have been awful and last night was a disaster.

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