The Houston Astros are not off to the start they had hoped for. At 3-7, they find themselves in last place in the AL West, and ahead of only the winless Minnesota Twins in the American League overall. The cause of their slow start? The pitching, which ranks 27th in ERA and 24th in FIP. The back end of the rotation has been particularly lousy, with Collin McHugh, Doug Fister, and Mike Fiers having combined to allow 23 runs in 29 innings. And yet, those aren’t the Astros starters I’d be most concerned about right now. Instead, I’m a bit worried about reigning Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel.
From a results perspective, he’s been okay-ish, with a 3.55 ERA through his first two starts. But the underlying numbers during those first two starts are a bit concerning. First, there’s this.
In both of his first two starts of 2016, Keuchel’s sinker has sat below 89; he hadn’t averaged less than 89 mph on his sinker in any start from 2013-2015. Velocity peaks later in the season, so you don’t want to compare a guy’s April velocity to his prior year season total velocity, but Keuchel is down significantly compared to even prior April numbers. And it’s not just the sinker.
His slider has sat below 78 in the first two starts of this year; it was over 80 most of last year. And the cutter is down too, dropping from 86 last April to 84 this April. The change-up is the only pitch that hasn’t lost velocity since last year, but because he’s lost a few ticks off his fastball, he’s getting less separation between his fastball and change-up than he did last year.
Of course, the samples are tiny and pitchers are allowed a couple of bad starts. For all we know, Keuchel will come out throwing like the 2015 Cy Young winner in his next start, and this will all be forgotten. But if this sticks around for a bit, well, we’ve seen lower-velocity Dallas Keuchel before, and the results weren’t very encouraging.
When Dallas Keuchel got to the big leagues as a rookie in 2012, he was throwing stuff not too terribly different from what he’s thrown in his first two starts in 2016. The sinker sat around 88, the cutter was at 85, the change-up was around 76, and he threw a big slow curveball which he’s since ditched entirely. That year, Keuchel made 16 starts for the Astros, and they were kind of a disaster: 134 ERA-, 144 FIP-, 131 xFIP-. He walked more batters than he struck out, so even though he managed to get a fair amount of ground balls, he was a below replacement level pitcher.
Keuchel hasn’t reverted back to being that guy, of course; even with his struggles, he’s struck out 13 of the 55 batters he’s faced, a rate more than double what he was striking out in his rookie year. But take a look at his plate discipline numbers during each year of his career.
Notably, one of the main things that allowed Keuchel to become a dominant pitcher was his ability to command pitches at the bottom of the zone, which is why he was able to run high O-Swing rates even while rarely throwing strikes. No one in baseball got more called strikes on pitches out of the zone last year, and that expanded zone allowed him to regularly pitch ahead in the count even though he had one of the lowest Zone% rates in all of baseball. Keuchel essentially lived on the edge of the zone, and after umpires kept giving him calls on the bottom edge, hitters adjusted by going after pitches that they couldn’t really square up.
Through his first two starts this year, he hasn’t been getting the same kind of calls. Here’s a pair of heat maps showing the percentages of called strikes he’s gotten in each part of the zone, first in 2015, then in 2016.
Last year, roughly 1 in 10 of Keuchel’s pitches that were over the plate but low were called strikes. This year, he’s thrown 24 pitches in those same areas, and only one has been called a strike. Certainly, we’re not talking about the sole cause of his struggles here, as even at last year’s rate, we’d be talking about only one or two more calls going in his favor, but the possibility of a tightened zone could have a larger impact on Keuchel than on other pitchers.
Given that umpires are getting detailed feedback based on Statcast data, it’s possible that umpires are now aware that he got more calls last year than almost any other pitcher, and are adjusting their zones up when he’s behind the plate. Over the last few years, we’ve seen the called strike areas for notorious pitch framers like Jonathan Lucroy and Yadier Molina shrink, and if the umpires are consciously giving Keuchel a smaller zone than he got last year, at the same time he’s throwing with diminished stuff, he may very well have to make some significant adjustments.
Keuchel’s ability to dominate depends on his ability to pound the bottom of the zone, given that his stuff just isn’t as overwhelming as many other high-end hurlers. But if the bottom of his zone doesn’t remain as generous as it has been, and he’s forced to throw 88 mph sinkers in hitters counts, it’s going to be difficult for him to repeat his remarkable 2015 season.
Again, it’s worth emphasizing that we’re talking about two starts. No conclusions should be drawn yet, and it’s entirely possible that Keuchel gets his stuff back and starts getting more calls at the bottom of the zone again. We’re dealing with speculation here, not any kind of certainty, and we don’t have anywhere near enough data to suggest that Keuchel is screwed.
But as a guy who didn’t even break 90 all that often, he’s always going to have a lower margin for error than other pitchers. As Jered Weaver has shown, velocity loss can matter even for guys who don’t rely on hard fastballs, and if Keuchel doesn’t get as many called strikes as he got last year, his problems could compound.
The Astros offense looks potentially quite good, especially if Tyler White can continue to provide an answer at first base and A.J. Reed joins the club at some point this summer. The bullpen should be good once Ken Giles stops giving up home runs. But for the Astros to win the AL West, they’re going to need solid starting pitching, and Keuchel was the guy who allowed the rest of the rotation to just be okay. If he’s not the Dallas Keuchel of 2015, the AL West could end up as a race to 85 wins.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.