Keuchel is sabermetrics star for Astros, and no fluke

Alan Truex 

HOUSTON — Dallas Keuchel is a pitcher for the Astros who is said to have a much better beard than fastball.  We’re constantly hearing he has average “stuff.”   He’s your typical as they say “crafty lefty.”  And not all that sophisticated, being born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and educated (not to use the term too loosely), at the U of Arkansas.

If somebody wants to think of him as a hillbilly, with his bluegrass-band beard, well,  that’s fine with him.  He happily buys into the conventional description.  He refers to himself as “a non-strikeout” pitcher.

So tell that to the Texas Rangers, the ones who struck out 13 times in seven innings Sunday. 

Some Rangers went down swinging several inches under a 92 mph four-seam fastball, which is actually quite speedy for a lefty – equal to a right-hander’s 95, most batters will tell you.

It’s time to shatter this myth that Keuchel gets by on control and smoke-and-mirrors, but not much smoke.  The truth is he’s a big strong guy — 6-3, 210 pounds.  Unlike many pitchers, he’s a real athlete – won the Gold Glove last year.  On the mound he has as fine an arsenal as all but a handful who are pitching today, and he has more control and guts than perhaps any.

He’s being overshadowed by the LA Dodgers’ Zack Greinke throwing zeroes by the dozens, but Keuchel is clearly the best pitcher in the American League, which is why he started in the All-Star Game.  He leads the league in wins (12), innings (144) and earned-run average (2.12).  And he has 127 strikeouts, hardly suggestive of a soft-tosser.

He blew the Rangers away 10-0 before a responsive 36,532 at Minute Maid.  He found extra motivation from the Rangers trying to rough up his teammates the night before.   Keuchel, who was dismissed early from Saturday’s game to rest for his start the following afternoon, was dutifully sleeping during the bench-clearing scene that featured Prince Fielder grabbing Astros catcher Hank Conger.

“I felt we got disrespected yesterday,” Keuchel said.  “I wasn’t here for it, but at the same time, I knew what to do.”

He didn’t do anything violent.  He pitched inside about 70 percent of the time, but nothing came near anybody’s ear.  It was classic Keuchel: low, low, low-cation. 

With an occasional high heater on the outside edge that no one could touch.  He allowed two hits, both singles.  No bases on balls.

Most pitchers hesitate to throw inside.  If they miss six inches one way the ball is over the middle of the plate and likely over the fence.  If they miss the other way they hit the batter and risk ejection or injury in a brawl.

Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, a lefty whose underpowered repertoire and precise control resembled Keuchel’s, lived on the outside corner, or two inches off it.  I can’t recall ever seeing a pitcher who throws inside as often as Keuchel does.  And get this: With the season more than halfway done, he has yet to hit a batter.  He’s walked only 34.

In the sixth inning of Sunday’s game, former Astros prospect Delino DeShields took a called strike on a slider that slanted to the knees and then below.  He put his hands on his hips as if to protest to the umpire without arguing.

Keuchel twice yelled at him to “sit down.”  As if he were ready for another brawl.

His demeanor bespoke confidence.  He was never breathing heavily while pitching briskly.  The game lasted less than three hours even though the Astros were all over the base paths (13 hits, 6 walks).  Keuchel should have had a complete game shutout, but with a double-digit lead and a stout bullpen, manager A.J. Hinch called for more rest for his ace.

With his knack for throwing low in the zone (74 percent at the knees or below), Keuchel induces more groundballs than the other big-league pitchers.  He gets 65 percent of his outs on grounders.  The fans in the Crawford Boxes receive few souvenirs from him.  He has yielded just seven home runs this year.

“I think the sabermetric people have helped me out a lot,” he’s said, in the sort of erudite manner that demolishes the façade of the country hick.  “Weak contact, groundball ratio, exit speed and all of that stuff,” he actually said, expressing gratitude for “people who appreciate the work that ‘non-strikeout pitchers’ are doing in the league.”

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow loves hearing talk like that.  He’s totally committed to sabermetrics, analytics, pretty much everything that’s ic.   He hired a NASA engineer, Sig Mejdal, to be “director of decision sciences.”

Along these lines, Keuchel is something of a pitching scientist, a master of mixing his five pitches and placing them where the batters don’t want them or expect them.

His slider may be the best in the league, 78-80 mph with a vicious late break.  His cutter, a little faster with just a little less bend, is also a beauty

The changeup, which of course is his slowest pitch, doesn’t look like much.  But it does what it’s supposed to do, keeping right-handed batters off stride and producing visible frustration at not being able to mash something that looks so hittable.

His sinker, 88-90 mph, does not look as challenging as the slider or cutter, but it dips late   and is the pitch he commands most easily.  According to Fangraphs, he throws it 52 percent of the time.

But let’s get back to the dubious narrative of Keuchel being some sort of Cinderella.

Yes he was chosen in the seventh round of the 2009 draft.  Much is made of him pitching poorly for the Astros until last season, when many (including yours truly) thought his 12-9 and 2.93 ERA were fluky numbers.  We should have realized that great pitchers usually take time to develop.  Keuchel is 27.  Chances are he will get better.

I did not see the Astros doing much this year.  In June 2014 Sports Illustrated pronounced them “Your 2017 World Series Champions,”   which seemed about right.  I did not think 2017 could come two years early.  It might, even though their lineup has a couple of batters straddling the Mendoza Line and another, Jon Singleton, reaching for it like it’s a lifeline.

I’m still not sure about the team behind him, but I don’t have the slightest doubt, anymore, about Dallas Keuchel.  He’s everything that’s good in baseball: skilled, humble but not falsely so; colorful, composed, fearless and clutchy.  With all due respect to James Harden, he’s the best bearded athlete in this city.

 

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