Dallas Keuchel, Beyond the Basics

Now that we have to take the Astros seriously, we also have to take the Astros’ players seriously, and among the first you must consider seriously is Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel is no one’s idea of a traditional ace, but the Astros are no one’s idea of a traditional competitive team, and you can’t get around Keuchel’s results. Down the stretch in 2013, he was a sleeper. At this point, he’s established, proven, reliable. Keuchel’s a big reason why the Astros are where they are, and if they do ultimately make it to the playoffs, Keuchel ought to be a weapon.

You know enough of the biography, I bet. Keuchel wasn’t a highly-regarded draft pick, and when he was coming through the system, he never ranked in Baseball America’s top-10 Astros prospects. When Keuchel was a big-league rookie, he wound up with more walks than strikeouts. Then, in what geologists would consider a “flash,” Keuchel figured it out and started getting results to match the big boys. He continues to drop his xFIP, as he’s more than adequate in all three components. His most visible strength, of course, being keeping the ball on the ground. But Keuchel does even more to maximize his skillset. We always look at walks, strikeouts, and homers. Those won’t tell you the whole Keuchel story.

Three areas where Keuchel does more to keep runs off the board:

Stolen Bases

This won’t be a complete shock to you, but Dallas Keuchel is left-handed. And so this won’t be a complete shock to you, but Keuchel’s pretty good at keeping the running game under control. It’s widely understood that stolen bases are about the runner, the pitcher, and the catcher, but the pitcher’s a lot more important than the catcher is, and Keuchel hasn’t seen many successes or attempts.

A season ago, Keuchel allowed one stolen base, with three unsuccessful attempts. This year, runners are 2-for-2, meaning since the start of last year, they’re 3-for-6. It’s a convenient starting point, because last year is when Keuchel truly emerged as what he is. We’re looking at 3-for-6, over just about 300 innings.

There are 132 pitchers who have thrown at least 150 innings since Opening Day 2014. In terms of steals per 200 innings, Keuchel has the seventh-lowest rate. In terms of attempts per 200 innings, Keuchel has the fifth-lowest rate. He’s not on the level of, say, Mark Buehrle, but few pitchers are, and Keuchel’s better than average among all pitchers, and just among all lefties. He keeps runners close, which isn’t bad for a guy constantly trying to induce groundball double plays.

Contact Quality

Used to be, people believed in differences in contact quality. Then there was DIPS theory, that threw everything into question. Then people resumed believing in differences in contact quality, but for a while, we had to beat around the bush. We didn’t really have public and direct measurements, but 2015 marks a year of great change. On FanGraphs, we display relevant statistics from Baseball Info Solutions. And, of course, there’s Statcast, measuring balls off the bat. Now we’re getting real ideas, and they speak well of Keuchel.

Tony actually wrote about this two months ago, highlighting what Keuchel did in 2014. A season ago, Keuchel was among the very best contact managers in the game. This season, he’s keeping it up, indicating this is probably a skill of his. To what extent, we can’t be sure, but it seems fairly extreme, as these things go. Keuchel got a lot better between 2013 and 2014, and he hasn’t yet stepped back.

According to the balls in play Statcast has measured, Keuchel has allowed an average exit velocity of 85 miles per hour, third-lowest in baseball, behind Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw. That goes beyond being just “good company.” We don’t know enough yet about this stuff to understand how meaningful it is, but this seems greatly encouraging.

And that’s just for the last two months. Since the start of last season, among those pitchers with 150+ innings, Keuchel has allowed baseball’s lowest hard-hit rate, at a hair above 19%. In second place, Garrett Richards is lagging by more than a percentage point. Third place is separated by four percentage points. A couple years ago, more than 30% of Keuchel’s balls in play were characterized as “hard hit.” His worst rate in a single month since: 24%. He’s working on his fifth month below 20%.

By living down and away, but by mixing up good pitches to keep hitters honest, Keuchel’s been able to avoid barrels. That’s how he’s been able to allow just a .321 slugging percentage since the start of last year, in the American League, in that ballpark. His isolated power against is just .088. That ties him for third in the league. Keuchel isn’t extraordinarily blessed in terms of swing-and-miss stuff, but he makes up for that with swing-and-mis-hit stuff. That might be more difficult, but he’s got it down.

Defense

Seldom do we talk about pitcher defense. That’s because, for the most part, it isn’t important, but Keuchel’s an exception. We do display pitcher DRS on our leaderboards. It includes running-game control, so, since I already mentioned that, I’ve stripped it out. What you see below is about just plays made or not made. The best defensive pitchers, per 200 innings, since last year started:

  1. Dallas Keuchel, +12.2 runs per 200 innings
  2. Henderson Alvarez, +5.3
  3. Marco Estrada, +4.9
  4. Masahiro Tanaka, +4.8
  5. Zack Greinke, +4.6

It’s not only that Keuchel is in the lead — it’s also by how much, as Keuchel is more than doubling up second place. Obviously, a big part of this is Keuchel’s ability to induce grounders. Groundball pitchers are likely to look better by this measure than fly-ball pitchers. But there are other groundball pitchers in baseball, and Keuchel’s blowing them all away. He’s excellent at fielding his position, preventing balls in play from escaping up the middle. Here’s a really simple measure: raw pitcher assists. Since the start of 2014:

  1. Dallas Keuchel, 76 assists
  2. Sonny Gray, 54
  3. Johnny Cueto, 50

Sometimes, those simple numbers mislead. This time, the assists say enough. Keuchel’s probably going to win another Gold Glove.

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There aren’t many pitchers in baseball who are better than average at controlling the running game, limiting good contact, and playing defense. Those are all differently important, but Keuchel’s good at each, and at the last two in particular, he’s separated from the mean by more than three standard deviations. Whether he’s that good, I don’t know, but even allowing for a little slippage, he’d still be among the best, and this is how Dallas Keuchel gets even more out of himself. He gets enough strikeouts, he doesn’t walk many hitters, and he doesn’t give up many homers. Beyond those basics, he also does other things to improve his own chances of winning. There’s not a lot Keuchel doesn’t do well. His is an incredible example of player development.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Green Mountain Boy
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Green Mountain Boy

Going back a bit, he reminds me of Tommy John when he was with the Yankees.