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:

Keuchel1

A mistake can lead to a good swing. A good swing, by Alex Rodriguez, in this situation, could have given the Yankees a 3-2 lead with the ability to turn to their two-headed monster of a bullpen for the game’s final nine outs. Keuchel made his mistake, but Rodriguez didn’t make his good swing. Maybe, if Keuchel made more mistakes, Rodriguez could have been better prepared.

See, that’s the thing Keuchel’s found that’s worked for him: just don’t make mistakes. This game is easy!

My favorite thing about watching baseball might be a pitcher with truly great command. It’s also possible I’m suffering from recency bias after having watched Dallas Keuchel pitch last night, because Dallas Keuchel possesses unequivocally excellent command. But Keuchel has the sort of command that’s seemingly born out of necessity. When you watch a pitcher like a Kluber or a Jacob deGrom, it isn’t always the command that’s noticeable, because those guys have mid-90s fastballs and breaking pitches with crazy movement that make themselves obvious. Keuchel doesn’t have those things, so instead it’s the command that makes itself obvious. When the command is obvious, the mistake pitches tend to stick out, which brings us back to the A-Rod pitch.

What follows is an image that’s simple enough: all of Keuchel’s pitches, last night, against right-handed batters. We’re looking at this from the catcher’s vantage point.

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You’ll notice the A-Rod pitch in the graphic, on account of the massive arrow I drew in Paint and the accompanying text. But if you noticed the A-Rod pitch during the game, it was likely due to the other notable aspect of that image — the complete absence of anything in the center of the plate, all night long.

This is where that “just don’t make mistakes” thing comes into play for Keuchel. To be fair, his command wasn’t quite as sharp against lefties, and that’s something he admitted in his surprisingly informative post-game interview with Buster Olney. But Keuchel’s got less room for error against righties, and he was truly remarkable against them on Tuesday, so we’re going to focus there.

Our own Jeff Zimmerman and Bill Petti have done some great work on the strike zone and pitcher command over the past couple years, and you might be familiar with the concept of Edge%. It’s pretty self-explanatory: the percentage of pitches thrown to the edges of the strike zone. It’s a skill, and one that gets talked about quite a bit, often referred to as “painting the corners.” A lesser talked about skill is also something calculated by Petti and Zimmerman in the same light, and that’s Heart%, or the percentage of pitches thrown down the middle of the plate.

It’s clear, above, that Keuchel avoided the heart of the plate. He threw 54 pitches to righties over the course of the night, and only nine passed through what Petti and Zimmerman have defined as the “heart.” And even those were on the edges of the heart, if you will. With nine pitches out of 54 being down the middle, Keuchel’s Heart% for the night was 16%. Now, for some context.

Lowest Heart%, 2015 regular season:

While the strike zone plot above may appear remarkable at first glance, that’s really just what Keuchel’s been doing to batters all season long. With his excellent command, Keuchel almost entirely avoids the middle of the plate, or in other words, never make mistakes. Keuchel spends a lot of time on the outside edge of the plate, to both lefties and righties, and spends even more time working out of the zone getting batters to chase. Throughout the course of a game, a lineup will maybe get a pitch or two per inning down the middle, so when they get them, they’ve got to make them count. Beyond those, a team’s best chance to do damage against Keuchel has to come on a pitch on the edge, and that’s not a great chance for the batter.

Let’s zoom in a bit on those nine heart pitches. When did Keuchel throw them?

  • First pitch: 3
  • Behind in count: 5
  • Even count: 1
  • Ahead in count: 0

That last line is what’s interesting to me. There must be fewer things more frustrating to a pitcher than getting ahead of a batter 1-2, only to make a mistake down the middle that gets crushed. Last night, when Keuchel got ahead of a right-handed batter, he didn’t throw a single pitch down the middle. He either painted the corner, or worked out of the zone. With that perspective, the nine “mistake” pitches that Keuchel threw down the middle look even less like mistakes. Five of them came when he needed a strike because he’d fallen behind in the count. Three of them came on the first pitch, and the Yankees had the second-lowest first-pitch swing rate in baseball this season, rendering them a relatively safe team to throw first-pitch middle-middle against. Even Keuchel’s perceived mistakes have reasonable explanations.

Keuchel’s best skill, in the big picture, is his penchant for weak contact. He led the American League in ground-ball rate this season, by a silly margin. He led the American League in soft contact rate this season, by a silly margin. Keuchel also started getting strikeouts this year, but the foundation of his game is missing barrels. Just as there are many different ways to pitch, there are many different ways to miss barrels. Dallas Keuchel’s way? Never throw the ball down the middle. See, it’s not that hard, kids. Just don’t make mistakes. Ever.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Welcome back, August!!!!

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“Welcome back, August!!!!”

Just in time for October!