The Houston rotation is more than one man, but no one man is more important for the rotation than Dallas Keuchel. Peripherals aside, Keuchel didn’t have the year he wanted to have in 2016, having to fight most of the way through shoulder discomfort. Related to that, Keuchel saw his ERA jump from 2.48 to 4.55. There were downs, and there were ups, but Keuchel and the Astros came in this season looking for a far greater performance. Give the Astros a 2015 version of Keuchel and the rotation would feel plenty more stable.
Three starts in, Keuchel’s allowed a total of two runs. He’s gotten some of his grounders back, and he’s seeing positive results again off of his sinker. It’s fair to wonder, then, whether Keuchel has re-discovered his old form. The reality of it? Not exactly. There’s a similar-looking pitcher here, sure, but Keuchel hasn’t succeeded through the 2015 approach. Rather, he’s gone the full Brad Ziegler.
As I write this, there are 97 qualified pitchers in the major leagues. Out of all of them, Dallas Keuchel has thrown the lowest rate of pitches in the strike zone, at 30%. The runner-up, if you will, is six percentage points removed, so Keuchel is out there by himself. His number last year was 43%. Before that, 40%, and 44%. Keuchel already threw fewer pitches in the zone than average, but in the early going, he’s kicked that tendency up, surviving off the edges.
Two more points one needs to acknowledge: Keuchel is the leader among those qualified pitchers in ground-ball rate. And, additionally, Keuchel is the leader among those qualified pitchers in soft-hit rate. He’s second in terms of allowing the lowest hard-hit rate, which is just kind of the inverse of the previous fact. Dallas Keuchel has generated grounders on grounders on grounders. He would already try to get grounders, but he hasn’t often gotten them like this.
Though it’s been just three games, Keuchel is sitting on his lowest-ever three-game zone rate:
So, Ziegler. Since 2012, there are 291 pitchers who have thrown at least 250 innings. Ziegler has thrown the lowest rate of pitches in the strike zone, at 36%. Ziegler also owns the No. 2 ground-ball rate in the sample, behind only Zach Britton, and Ziegler has yielded a paltry .269 BABIP, which ranks him among the leaders. Just to keep spitting Brad Ziegler facts, his career FIP is 3.36, but his career ERA is 2.43. Ziegler wasn’t blessed with upper-echelon stuff, but he developed enough funk and command to stay away from the most dangerous part of the bat.
Keuchel’s strikeouts haven’t gone up. His fastball velocity also hasn’t gone up, even after recovering from the shoulder problem. Keuchel’s peak velocity hasn’t been close to where it was just a couple years ago, so it could be that Keuchel knows he’s working with a reduced margin of error. So it seems like he’s seeking out weak contact. Exactly how has Keuchel been pitching around the zone? Here are some pitch-frequency heat maps, showing 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Keuchel has a history of trying to work down, to the arm-side. This year, he’s worked down almost exclusively, completely avoiding the zone’s upper half. Nearly everything has been at the knees or below, just like how Ziegler works, and at least to this point, it’s been working. As usual, I’ve made some use of Baseball Savant. Using the filter options, I selected the five lowest pitch-zone areas. There are 220 pitchers who’ve thrown at least 100 pitches in both 2016 and 2017. Among them, last year, Keuchel had the No. 31 low-pitch rate. This year, he has the No. 2 low-pitch rate, slightly behind only teammate Luke Gregerson. Keuchel’s low-pitch-rate increase of 17 percentage points is the fourth-greatest, and he already worked mostly down. Now it’s like he doesn’t even pay attention to the other spots.
Allow me to show you a typical Dallas Keuchel pitch for 2017.
That’s exactly it. It’s not always a strike, but it’s close enough to being a strike, and the Astros know a thing or two about pitch-framing. When Keuchel works low like that, he generates a lot of this contact.
Now, this is important: Keuchel doesn’t make it impossible to make quality contact.
Remember, it’s increasingly a low-ball-hitting league, and in that way, you could declare that Keuchel is playing with fire. Hitters are trying to attack low sinkers, because there are so many low sinkers, and the swing-change players are better down in the zone, because of their uppercuts. This is a change that’s gradually taking place. There are pitchers and pitching staffs trying to get ahead of it by working up a little bit more. High fastballs, even if you’ve never fancied yourself as having much of a high fastball. Anything to change the eye level.
Some guys are working up. Keuchel is doing the opposite. Not only is he working low — he’s working so low, so consistently, he’s trying to get underneath the barrel. It’s like he wants to tempt the hitters, and then have the pitch drop an unexpected inch and a half. Maybe it’s a dangerous game, but then, maybe Keuchel isn’t cut out for throwing four-seamers at the belt. Brad Ziegler has made it work like this. Zach Britton has also made it work like this, albeit with way more velocity. Keuchel has to love what he’s already done. It’ll encourage him to keep it up, attacking the shins while opponents think he’s attacking the kneecaps.
Dallas Keuchel was already one of the better weak-contact pitchers around, but now that his stuff is a hair or two depleted, he’s trying to get as much weak contact as possible. His command hasn’t wavered, and all he needs is for his command of the ball to be better than his opponents’ command of the strike zone. Keuchel has made a mission of the lower edge. So far, so good.
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.