Stick to Your Guns: Keuchel Finding Success with Groundball Approach

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Dallas Keuchel is at his best when the elusive left-hander is throwing mostly his breaking pitches and using his fastball down in the strike zone. The 2015 American League Cy Young Award winner is sort of an anomaly in that regard; in a Major League Baseball landscape that rewards specialized guys that throw 101 from the first inning to the seventh, Keuchel has trended backwards and instead fools opposing hitters with smarts and illusion.

The Houston Astros starter strays from the rest of the dazzling rotation the 2017 World Series champions trot out to the hill in that his stuff isn’t built for a excess of strikeouts and swings-and-misses. His concern is weak contact, groundballs, more weak contact, and more groundballs. And, well, it works.

Keuchel’s average fastball velocity is nowhere near his Houston compeers. Where MLB All-Stars Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole can top out at 99 MPH, Keuchel’s max is 93 and he averages an 89.8 MPH four-seamer. But, that’s the beauty of the Dallas Keuchel in a nutshell. When he’s at his best, his unorthodox and outdated approach can come out and sting you.

Keuchel ranks fourth in MLB in soft contact percentage by FanGraphs’ calculations, with 24.5% of all balls hit off of Keuchel being extremely weak relative to the average batted ball. If you’re not familiar with that stat, Boston Red Sox lefty Chris Sale ranks first, and any time you’re almost as good as Chris freaking Sale, you’re doing well. Keuchel also ranks fourth in groundball percentage at 53.9%.

Houston @astros left-hander @kidkeuchy has been tremendous in his last four starts thanks to a reinvented groundball-first approach.Click To Tweet

Such was the case on Friday night. Keuchel picked up his fourth win in as many starts with an eight-inning, two-hit, one-run, five-strikeout, one-walk performance against the Los Angeles Angels that brought Astros fans back to 2015 for a night. He improved to 8-8 on the season with his fifth straight win in games where Keuchel is the pitcher of record, and his ERA continued its steady drop from the low-to-mid fours to its current 3.60 average.

He was methodically inducing groundballs and weak pop-ups with ease, using his slider and four-seam fastball down low in the zone to challenge hitters.

Nothing like getting the best player in the world to ground into a routine putout against the shift in a 1-1 count. Last season or in 2016, Keuchel would have gotten greedy and offered Mike Trout something like a changeup high and away, or try to blow him away with a fastball in this 1-1, bases empty, lefty-righty count. Instead, Keuchel sticks with his guns and does what works for him, putting a slider low and inside to the pull-heavy hitter and forcing a grounder.

But that’s not going to work against a left-handed batter, right? Dallas Keuchel asks “hold my Minute Maid.”

Shohei Ohtani struck out three times on Friday night, but this one sticks out. 2-2 count against a hitter who opens up to inside pitches very well, and Keuchel tosses a sinking, screwball-like fastball low and inside in extreme Dallas Keuchel fashion. Ohtani swings and misses.

Keuchel has won his last five decisions and his last four starts, so we have way more video to work with here. Let’s check out how his groundball approach did against the Detroit Tigers on July 13, starting with this beautiful changeup with which he struck out Niko Goodrum.

There’s on two on and one out, with a double play ending the top half of the inning. All pitchers want to keep this pitch low and try to force a groundball, but Keuchel is so comfortable with pitches low in the zone that he can experiment with whatever he wants, especially given the 0-2 count.

Another sinking fastball. Another strikeout. Keuchel is the exact opposite of a strikeout pitcher and won’t compile them the way other perennial Cy Young Award contenders do, but his stuff down in the zone is electric when it’s working for him. This is what Keuchel does best, and what makes #60, #60.

Here’s a perfectly induced double play to end the top half of an inning.

And another.

Let’s fly over to his start from July 8 against the Chicago White Sox, where Keuchel’s excellence low in the zone and smarts to tie up a power-hitter like Jose Abreu are displayed in the next two GIFs.

In conclusion, Dallas Keuchel has been as good as he has ever been over his last four starts because he’s attacking hitters with breaking stuff low in the zone. Over the span of his last four starts, the two-time All-Star has posted 27.2 strong innings, a 1.30 ERA with only four total earned runs allowed, 18 strikeouts to six walks, a .194 opponents’ batting average, and most shockingly, has allowed just three extra base hits to the 107 batters he’s faced.

This isn’t just the eye test talking about his brilliance down in the zone. This FanGraphs heat map tells the tale. He’s peppering the lower parts of the strike zone and trying to catch hitters chasing pitches down below the zone, and doing it wonderfully.

Dallas Keuchel heat map from FanGraphs. Pitcher view, from July 3, 2018 to present. All counts, 415 total pitches.

As an Astros fan, this is a great sign. Keuchel has stuck to his guns and continued to utilize a groundball-first approach atypical of the modern MLB pitcher having success in 2018. If you’re a purist of the game, the guys like Dallas keep you tuning in. As for Keuchel himself, the left-hander is a free agent at season’s end, and could make bank if this resurgence continues. One way or another, it’s a welcomed sight.

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