Dallas Keuchel and Weak Contact

We rightfully spill a lot of ink here chronicling the exploits of the game’s best pitchers; the Clayton Kershaws, the Felix Hernandezes, etc.. We also tip our collective hat towards pitchers with the “wow” factor, from Chris Sale To Stephen Strasburg to Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez. All that said, who do you think was the AL’s top contact manager last season? It wasn’t Hernandez, or Sale, or even Garrett Richards who paced the circuit in that category for much of the season. It was the Astros’ Dallas Keuchel, and two starts into the 2015 season, the 27-year-old lefthander has quickly set out to prove that it wasn’t a fluke.

The Astros tabbed Keuchel on the 7th round of the 2009 draft out of the University of Arkansas. He was one of those “safe” mid-round drafts; a guy who you absolutely knew could be a starting pitcher into the upper reaches of the minor leagues, but who would need to develop a go-to skill to project as a mainstay in the big leagues. He wasn’t much of a bat misser in college, on Cape Cod or in the minors. He only struck out 323 hitters in 493 minor league innings, but his excellent control (only 104 walks) kept propelling him upward.

Each season I compile my own minor league pitching rankings based on pitchers’ K and BB rates relative to league and level, adjusted for age. It basically serves as a follow list, with traditional scouting then used to tweak the order. Keuchel, who allowed more than a hit per inning while posting an ordinary 3.74 minor league ERA, appeared on my postseason list only once, at #159 in 2010, held back by that low K rate. This marked him as likely no more than a complementary MLB performer. Still, he had a strong 1.95 groundball/flyball ratio that season, one of the best among prospects qualifying for my list. This gave him a puncher’s chance to outperform his ranking.

And that is exactly what he has done. After fairly inauspicious trials with the Astros in 2012 and 2013, Keuchel blossomed last season, hurling 200 high-quality innings for the Astros. How did he get it done? Was it a one-off fluke or might the Astros have something special in the 6’3″, 210, southpaw? Let’s take a look at his 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data to get a better feel. First, the frequency information:

FREQ – 2014
Keuchel % REL PCT
K 18.1% 94 38
BB 5.9% 82 30
POP 4.5% 55 6
FLY 17.7% 62 5
LD 17.1% 82 3
GB 60.7% 143 99

There’s a lot to discuss here. Obviously, Keuchel is a pitch-to-contact guy, with lower than average K and BB frequencies, for percentile ranks of 38 and 30, respectively. Based on his minor league track record and early major league experience, one might have expected him to have an even lower K rate, but Keuchel has incorporated just enough deception into his game to have at least a respectable K rate. HIs swing-and-miss rate has sat squarely in the very respectable 9.0% range since 2013. The BB rate has always been low, and is one of the cornerstones of his skill set. He has always had good control, but in the last season or so, he has greatly enhanced his precision; his command within the zone.

His batted-ball frequencies couldn’t be any more extreme. His ground ball tendency is the most extreme in the game today. His 60.7% ground ball rate was not only by far the highest among AL ERA qualifiers — hence, the 99 percentile rank — it was even higher than the AL’s more extreme grounder-generating relief pitchers. Higher than Jake Petricka, Burke Badenhop, you name him. So high that his percentile ranks in all of the other batted-ball categories were in the single digits.

Most importantly, he had a liner rate percentile rank of 3. While liner rates do fluctuate more so than those of other BIP types, some pitchers at the extreme high and low ends possess pronounced tendencies to allow or avoid them. Keuchel had a liner rate percentile rank of 4 in his 2012 debut, so this could well be a talent of his.

So, we’ve got a guy who compensates for a lower than average K rate with a ton of grounders. That would seem to be a recipe for competence, for innings-eating, for league-averageness. Let’s dig into Keuchel’s production allowed by BIP type information to see if there are any other pieces of information that can lift him higher:

PROD – 2014
FLY 0.327 0.755 125 87
LD 0.726 0.916 116 97
GB 0.199 0.223 67 76
ALL BIP 0.306 0.430 83 74
ALL PA 0.246 0.291 0.346 84 76 2.93 3.12 2.83

The actual production allowed on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

While Keuchel allowed above average actual production on fly balls (125 REL PRD) and liners (116), those figures fall below MLB average to 87 and 97, respectively, after adjustment for context. That isn’t the big story, however. With Keuchel, it’s always about the grounders. Hitters batted only .199 AVG-.223 SLG against him on the ground in 2014, for a meager 67 REL PRD, adjusted up only slightly to 76 for context.

Among AL ERA qualifiers, that ranked him tied for second with Hernandez, behind only Richards in contextualized ADJ PRD on grounders, a measure of grounder quality. Though Richards (49.65%, under one standard deviation above AL average)and Hernandez (55.17%, just under 2 STD above) are grounder generators in their own right, they are nowhere near Keuchel’s (60.72% over 2.5 STD above) league in terms of ground ball quantity.

Keuchel also allowed the lowest average grounder velocity among AL ERA qualifiers, with only Johnny Cueto and Matt Garza allowing lower average grounder velocities in the NL. It should be noted that the average ground ball velocity in the NL is quite a bit lower in the NL thanks to all of those pesky pitchers who get to come to bat on a regular basis.

On all BIP, Keuchel allowed an 83 overall REL PRD, but adjusted for context, his ADJ PRD — or Adjusted Contact Score falls to 74, just nosing out Sale and Richards for honors as AL Contact Manager of The Year. Add back the K and BB, and those numbers creep slightly upward to 84 and 76, respectively, giving him a “Tru” ERA of 2.83, better than his actual mark of 2.93, his calculated component ERA of 3.12, and even his FIP of 3.21. FIP simply doesn’t adequately reward successful contact managers.

So, now that we’ve examined all of the data, we see that not only does Keuchel generate far more grounders than anyone else, he is the extreme upper tier when it comes to limiting ground ball authority. For most pitchers, grounder authority fluctuates a bit from year to year, but at the poles, the outliers tend to remain the same. Keuchel has outlier ground ball generating ability, compounded by outlier grounder authority limiting ability.

The two-seam sinking fastball is the key to Keuchel’s repertoire, but obviously he can’t just rear back and throw it constantly. He has willed his four-seamer into a viable 89-90 MPH well-placed offering that must be respected, and has expertly fine tuned his slider and changeup into very useful secondary offerings. They all set up the two-seamer, thrown just as hard as the four-seamer, with late sink that usually proves impossible to lift in the air with any frequency or authority.

Can Keuchel get any better? Probably not, but he is every bit as good as his gaudy 2014 ERA, and there is no reason to believe he will materially backslide anytime soon. He hasn’t even reached his first arbitration payday yet, so he clearly qualifies as one of the single best pitching bargains in the game at present. He might not look or quack like an ace, but Dallas Keuchel most certainly deserves to be classified as one at present.

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He’s like watching a video game pitcher. Every pitch moved the way he planned and hits its mark. If the umpire is giving him a few inches off the plate or below the knees he keeps hitting it over and over like Maddux used to.

Feel Plant Ear
Feel Plant Ear

And then there’s Laz Diaz behind the plate.