Houston Astros: Ground control to Major Keuchel

dallas-keuchel-01

What has happened to our ace?

Dallas Keuchel, our top of the line up starting pitcher, is venturing through some hard times. The 2x Golden Glove winner, and Cy Young Award recipient of 2015, is cruising through a low point in his 5th season of the MLB with the Astros. What started out as another promising season, Keuchel took the mound against the 2015 Wild Card rival New York Yankees on April 5th (after a 1-day rain delay), posted up 5 strike outs, 3 hits and 2 runs in a season opener victory. The Astros hit the gate running, but quickly tripped and fell, landing square on their face.

The rough start, minus the opening day win, was highlighted by poor pitching from the starting rotation, and compounded by poor and inconsistent at bat appearances. April’s 7-17 start began to slowly be erased from our collective minds with an impressive start to May: 8-6 in the first 2 weeks, and eventually rounding out to 10-8 and a vital on-the-road series win against the Chicago White Sox before heading home to face the Rangers. By all appearances, the pitching had settled in and the team was waking up at bat. Even though the team appeared to be on the mend, there were some games that got away.

That’s another story, though, because we’re here to talk about Keuchel.

Keuchel’s season, in the first couple of weeks, didn’t immediately plummet. By the end of the 2nd week, Keuchel’s record was 2-1, with a total of 5 earned runs over 3 games and an ERA of 2.18. He should have been 3-0, but the pretty pathetic AB showing against the Milwaukee Brewers made nothing come of a 1 run loss in a low scoring game. Keuchel did his job, but the offense failed him. And then the Astros went on to face the bane of their existence: the Texas South Oklahoma Rangers, in Arlington. As with the rest of the team, the Rangers have sunk deeply into Keuchel’s head.

For the most part, it appears that the Rangers broke our ace. They posted 13 hits, 6 runs, and a 1st home run off Keuchel for his season, and accounted for Keuchel’s first loss in which he bore the responsibility for. Anything over 4 runs, and you’re not giving your offense a fair chance. This, though – this wasn’t the game that broke Keuchel. This was the beginning – to fans it was Keuchel playing his part in getting a rough start over early, like everyone else in the starting rotation. It was, at that point, still early: 3 weeks in, and hopes and dreams of the team and fans not terribly crushed.

The next game that saw Keuchel taking the mound is what broke our ace. It shouldn’t have, really, but it did. The Seattle Mariners game with the worst strike zone calling to date this season, thanks to home plate ump Brian Gorman, who is known as a hitter’s ump. Basically meaning he’s going to call in favor of batters, although his inconsistent zone in that game wasn’t helping anyone. It did severely mess with Keuchel, though, to the point of making some strong words after the game.

So how did this game break Keuchel? Simple – a low-velocity pitcher counts on his placement. Keuchel throws an relies mainly on his slider and sinker, but can also pitch a good change-up, and has a 4 seam and cut fast ball. And, I use that term loosely, as his velocity averages out at about 90 MPH. So, Keuchel’s asset is in his placement. When that’s gone, he’s useless. That’s not a kind way to put it, but that’s the reality. When a couple of bad outings get in his head, like they’ve done, then he’s in trouble.

Let’s see it in real terms, after the Mariners game:

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That chart shows where Keuchel’s sinking his season. His 2015 chart shows command, consistency, and location. 2016 shows a wildly inconsistent, but primarily right over the plate location. Low velocity (less than 90 MPH, on average) strikes right in the zone mean higher hit rates, which is what we’ve been seeing. The Mariners game wasn’t the only off-base strike zone being called, either. Home plate officiating this year seems to be quite a mess so far, but it’s damaging for a location pitcher.

What’s insulting is that he’s been getting the rookie squeeze in the past few games. A 5 year player getting the rookie treatment is almost degrading to a player. Keuchel lost his composure (as much as Keuchel will) with the strong wording surrounding the terribly called Mariners game, and asserted as such that giving him rookie treatment is insulting. Seems like that stuck with him, too, because any weird or bad call sets him off into a tailspin, and he starts missing his mark.

That is Keuchel’s value – that and left-handed pitching. Historically, it is an uphill battle for a pitcher to lack the velocity to regularly throw a nasty fastball in the mix. It’s not impossible, but it stacks some odds against him. He’s been consistent with his location on the edges in the past few years, getting batters to stretch and chase, and often swing and whiff. That’s changing this year. Batters in the AL are adjusting to his presence, and that makes it difficult for him to adjust successfully.

Then you add the strike zone squeeze and that mental stigma leftover from a particularly terribly called game, and you have your current Keuchel disaster. That creates a bit of desperation on Keuchel’s part, which is why we’ve seen the curve ball worked back into his pitching rotation. Not his strong suit by any means, but also not a ball that batters are used to seeing from him. With any hope, he can work a few weaker pitches back in, and continue hammering out that location.

What I think he needs is 1 week off from rotation, and to immediately limit his innings to 5-6. Let him build it back up, and move away from some of those terrible starts. He’s not done by any means, but he’s certainly struggling. And it isn’t a decision that Keuchel would like, but it’s a management decision that is needed for the good of the team. Keep your players happy, but do so responsibly. This is a decision that needs to be made in the next rotation reset, and Keuchel will end up being a better player for it.

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