Dallas Keuchel Somehow Became Relevant

For me personally, I’m not sure there was a bigger pitching surprise in 2014 than Dallas Keuchel. I saw a handful of Keuchel’s Triple-A starts in 2011 and 2012, and I had a hard time envisioning him carving out any meaningful role on a major-league pitching staff. As a lefty who topped out around 90 mph, Keuchel was also essentially a two-pitch pitcher.

To be fair, they were two pretty good pitches. Keuchel has always had a strong changeup, paired with a two-seamer with very nice dual-plane break. The problem was that his other pitches were basically junk. He threw some sort of slurvey breaking ball that didn’t fool anyone, and rarely found the strike zone. He had a four-seam fastball, but it was extremely flat and virtually lifeless.

It’s always tough to project two-pitch pitchers into a major-league rotation, especially with mediocre velocity. Of course, the hope is that a third pitch will develop, but I didn’t see any way for his flat four-seamer to play up. The same could be said about whatever you wanted to call his breaking ball at that point of his career.

The last time I saw Keuchel pitch in the minors, he had a prototypical “2012 Dallas Keuchel” start: 7 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 2 K. He was just barely good enough to eat some innings as a Triple-A starter, but I just didn’t see a way for Keuchel — who struggled to miss minor-league bats — to carve out a role in a major-league rotation.

At that point, you start thinking of possible bullpen roles. Even in that department, it wasn’t easy to come up with a spot for Keuchel in the majors. As you may have surmised from his sinker/change profile, he produced reverse platoon splits. Here are his splits from Double-A and Triple-A:

  • vs L – .284/.316/.415, 0.96 HR/9, 5.73 K/9, 1.43 BB/9
  • vs R – .257/.303/.364, 0.53 HR/9, 4.73 K/9, 2.27 BB/9

His home-run rate against same-handed hitting was nearly double the rate at which he gave up homers to righties, and that slash line in general pretty much rules out a future as a lefty specialist. Then, looking at the numbers against righties, it’s hard to see how a pitcher who scraped up barely a strikeout every other inning would handle major-league hitters.

Just under two months after I last saw him pitch in Triple-A, Keuchel got the call to the majors, where he pitched about as well as I expected him to. It was just that he had now developed a problem with free passes:

  • 2012 MLB (85.1 IP) – 5.27 ERA, 1.48 HR/9, 4.01 K/9, 4.11 BB/9

Then came 2013, and a strange thing happened. On the surface, Keuchel was nearly as bad as he had been the previous season, with a bloated 5.15 ERA. However, his strikeout rate soared to 7.20 K/9, a rate he hadn’t even sniffed since High-A back in 2010. He also cut the walks down to a more manageable 3.05 BB/9. Throw in a very high .340 batting average on balls in play, and his 4.25 FIP and 3.58 xFIP provided plenty of optimism for a successful 2014.

Still, I wasn’t buying it. He was still allowing in excess of 1.5 baserunners each inning. The BABIP surge could be partially explained by a sharp increase in line drives, pairing with a slight increase in grounders to produce a much lower fly-ball rate. Even his crazy-low 23.2% FB% wasn’t enough to prevent him from giving up tons of homers. He gave up 20 dingers in 153.2 IP, and 17.4% of his fly balls left the yard — a rate that was the worst in the league among starting pitchers by a country mile.

So how did that guy turn into 2014’s No. 33 fantasy starting pitcher? It’s time to put on my detective hat and get to work! In my opinion, it largely comes down to two factors: the development of his slider, and pounding the bottom of the zone. Let’s start with that “pounding the bottom of the zone” stuff. Just check out this zone profile of every pitch thrown by Keuchel in 2014:

Okay, wow. First thing that jumps out to me here is that only about 6% of Keuchel’s pitches were in the upper third of the strike zone. Even more remarkably, he threw in excess of 37% of his pitches below the knees. As you may expect, the 26-year-old finally kissed that home-run rate goodbye, as he allowed just 11 bombs in his 200 innings in 2014.

Pounding the bottom of the strike zone allowed both his two-seamer and his change to play up considerably, but the other factor is how much Keuchel tightened up his slider. Even a quick look at how PITCHf/x has categorized Keuchel’s breaking balls over the last three years shows how the offering has developed.

When he broke into the majors, he was still mostly throwing that loopy slurve that I saw him use in the minors; the pitch so uninspiring that it was hard to see it becoming even league-average. Over the last two years, he’s turned a largely useless 72-mph slurve into a useful third pitch, a slider that comes in at around 80 mph and has good horizontal break. In the graph below, you can see how Keuchel has dramatically changed the way he throws breaking balls:

keuchel slider

Now, I’m not saying that Keuchel’s slider is any sort of special offering. It’s not. What it is, however, is plenty good enough to finally give him a useful third pitch to go with the change and the two-seamer. A guy who once looked like a questionable future reliever now looks like a quality mid-rotation starter. Funny what happens when pitchers develop a third pitch and throw everything at the knees, isn’t it?

Steamer has Keuchel projected for a 3.82 ERA and 3.61 FIP for next year, placing him at 2.7 wins above replacement. I can’t say that I disagree with this assessment. Keuchel has made significant changes to the way he pitches, and unless he somehow loses his newfound third pitch or starts leaving everything up in the zone, there’s no real reason to think he can’t sustain mid-rotation value.

While I don’t expect him to flirt with top-30 value like he did this year, I’d confidently slot him into the top 40-50 range for 2015. On the surface, Keuchel seems like a fluke, a one-year wonder. The underlying stats tell a different story, one of a guy who has steadily developed his repertoire and approach to pitching over the last two seasons. He’s never going to be an ace, but his floor now seems higher than I ever would have projected his ceiling just 2 1/2 years ago.

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Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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Kurt
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Kurt

That zone chart really is amazing.

I’m trying to decide if I should hold Keuchel at $1 as my #5 in a 12-team roto dynasty (Kershaw, Kluber, Greinke, Cobb top 4). I could afford to spend more on an alternative but I’m not sure yet what’ll be out there at auction (probably only a handful of top 30 guys, and it’ll cost much more to roster one of them). Should I hold or take the risk and keep the roster spot open?

Dan
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Dan

I’d hold; you can spend money elsewhere. Keuchel is going to be a bargain for $1, and it sound like you have great powerhouse pitching in your top four (Kershaw and Kluber in a 12-team league is awesome), so maybe allocate that money to hitters?