After Dallas Keuchel’s Cy Young season in 2015, he had a down year in 2016 (4.55 ERA, 86 ERA+, 1.286 WHIP for a 9-12 win-loss record), but he has bounced back very well in 2017. His 2.90 ERA (136 ERA+) and 1.119 WHIP make this the second-best season of his career, and his 14-5 win-loss record — in spite of missing most of June and July with a pinched nerve in his neck — makes him arguably the ace of the Houston staff over Justin Verlander.
He pitched much better before his DL stint, putting up an excellent 1.67 ERA with 0.872 WHIP. After his return, his numbers were much worse (4.24 ERA, 1.386 WHIP), but by September, he had mostly returned to form, with a 2.87 ERA and 1.245 WHIP.
What he throws. Keuchel is famous for his sinker (‘SI”), and he also throws a slider (“SL”), changeup (“CH”), cutter (“FC”), and probably a four-seam fastball (“FF”). The four-seam fastball isn’t well differentiated from the cutter and sinker, but one can find a cluster of pitches with slightly more velocity than either, but with less horizontal and more vertical movement than the sinker. Of course, some of these may just be bad sinkers, as the pitches in this cluster tend to be hit much harder than most of Keuchel’s offerings.
Keuchel isn’t a hard thrower; his sinker velocity is near the bottom of sinker or two-seam fastball velocity, compared to other left-handed pitchers who threw at least 100 sinkers or two-seamers this season. His sinker averages 88.7 mph, peaking around 92.6 mph, and his four-seam fastball is about the same, averaging 88.6. Nor do most of his pitches have exceptional movement.
In the case of a sinker, of course, removing movement is the goal, and Keuchel does excel at that. His sinker (the red dot in the charts below) has less vertical and horizontal movement than most other pitchers’ sinkers or two-seam fastballs. The lack of vertical “rise” means that batters, accustomed to targeting fastballs that rise much further, tend to swing over the top of the pitch and are much more likely than average to generate ground balls.
Pitch usage and trends. Overall, Keuchel relies heavily on his sinker (50.6% of pitches), with his slider and changeup also seeing significant usage (18.8% and 12.9% respectively). HIs cutter is less used overall, and his four-seam fastball is mostly an afterthought (or a mistake).
Keuchel is unusual in that left- and right-handed batters see a very different repertoire. Lefties see essentially just two pitches, sinkers and sliders, whereas right-handed batters see fewer sinkers and slider, and far more changeups and cutters. Keuchel’s approach also changes drastically depending on the count. He is much more likely to use his secondary pitches when ahead in the count, but when he falls behind he cuts back on the cutter and slider, relying much more on his sinker and changeup.
Keuchel had much better results before his DL stint in June and July (marked with the blue line in the charts below), but his repertoire and velocity didn’t change aside from his cutter, which he nearly abandoned after the first half-dozen games and didn’t completely restore until the last few games of the season:
Pitch value. One reason to suspect that his four-seam fastball might just be a sinker that didn’t sink is that the pitch is by far his worst, yielding 16.1 total bases per 100 pitches. However, all Keuchel’s other pitches are well above average, and since his four-seam fastball only represents 8.8% of his pitches it doesn’t harm him much, and may even help him by setting up other pitches.
Keuchel’s greatest strength is his ability to elicit ground balls, which he does more than any other pitcher in the majors (at least 140 innings pitched). His sinker is the biggest contributor, yielding an absurd 79.9% groundball percent, but all of his pitches are above the major-league average for ground balls.
Pitch location. Keuchel’s pitches may look very ordinary in terms of velocity and movement, but his excellent location more than makes up for that. Almost all of his pitches precisely target the edges of the strike zone (the grey polygon), in tight clusters. His sinker, in particular, is centered exactly on the bottom margin of the strike zone. His slider to lefties has a good chance of dropping below and outside the zone, but many of those pitches are at the outside corner of the zone; again, in tight clusters that show Keuchel is deliberately choosing those locations.
Featured image courtesy of Getty Images