The 2015 season is over and Dallas Keuchel has been crowned the AL Cy Young award winner. The pitcher helped lead the Houston Astros to the ALDS in what is likely a sign of things to come for the young team. Ian York examines Keuchel’s repertoire to show what sets him apart from the competition.
Dallas Keuchel earned his 2015 Cy Young award in spite of a set of pitches that don’t seem overwhelming. Many pitchers throw more spectacular fastballs or have more movement on their pitches, but are much less effective pitchers. What makes Keuchel more successful than they are?
Keuchel throws five pitches: a four-seam fastball (abbreviated “FF” by PITCHf/x), a sinker (which PITCHf/x calls a two-seam fastball, “FT”), a cutter (“FC), slider (“SL”) and changeup (“CH”). PITCHf/x algorithms are very bad at distinguishing his sinker and four-seam, mis-identifying many sinkers as four-seams; here I have manually re-categorized the pitches (skipping a handful of pitches that didn’t fit into a clear set). In terms of speed, break direction, and break length, they look like this:
The sinker and four-seam fastball actually form fairly clear clusters, though not as distinct as his other pitches. Both are almost exactly the same speed, averaging just under 90 mph, but the four-seam has much more vertical movement and the sinker has more lateral movement.
Keuchel throws a lot of sinkers, both to right- and left-handed batters — nearly half of his pitches are sinkers (not a third, as PITCHf/x claims). Other than fastballs, though, his repertoire to batters of different handedness is quite different:
Lefties see a fairly simple mix, almost entirely sinkers and sliders. Righties do slightly better against him (OPS against of .606 vs .461 from lefties), and he throws a broader set of pitches to them, including more cutters and changeups.
The vertical movement of the four-seam is upward, relative to the path that it would take just under the influence of gravity. The sinker also has some backspin pulling it up, so it does move slightly upward compared to its no-spin path, but much less than the four-seam. Here are representative four-seams and sinkers for comparison. The four-seam was thrown to Chris Owings, in the sixth inning of a game against Arizona on October 2; Owens flied out on the pitch. The sinker was thrown to Drew Butera, in the second inning of a June 30 game, and Butera grounded out:
Since batters are used to adjusting to a “rising” fastball, they tend to swing over the top of the sinker, leading to ground balls. Keuchel is near the top of leaderboards in drawing ground balls on balls in play, though only on his sinker — his other pitches are all around league-average for ground balls. This in spite of the fact that his sinker is not really exceptional in its speed or its lateral or horizontal movement, when we compare to all pitchers who threw at least 200 sinkers in 2015 (the red arrows show where Keuchel lands):
He is slightly better than average for movement (remember that for a sinker, less vertical movement is better), but it is hard to say that the numbers are enough to account for his success.
Where Keuchel’s effectiveness does come from is his impressive command. Here are the distributions of his pitches this year. (These charts are from the viewpoint of the umpire, so the batters would be standing in between the charts):
Each pitch shows a tight cluster in a specific location, generally right at the edge of the strike zone. The only exception is his sinker to lefties, which he often throws in the center of the zone, daring the batter to hit it.
It’s nice to have spectacular speed or dramatic pitch movement, but it’s more important to have excellent control of a set of decent pitches. Keuchel has taken this combination to a Cy Young award, and has the potential to contend for more in the future.