June 27, 2014
Houston, We Have Lift-Off
The Astros have unearthed a couple of legitimate All-Star candidates in their rotation this season, and though neither pitcher fits the “high-ceiling prospect mold” that has become characteristic of the franchise, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh have quickly ascended from afterthoughts to valuable assets for the organization. Is their performance merely a blip on the radar, with regression looming to take each of them down a peg, or are there legitimate reasons to get excited about either of these two pitchers? Let's dig in.
He was hit hard during his rookie season in the bigs. Opposing managers stacked their lineups with right-handed bats, giving Keuchel the platoon disadvantage 76 percent of the time, while right-handed batters enjoyed a .304/.363/.469 collective line against him. The southpaw's sophomore campaign has been much more successful despite nearly the same platoon breakdown, as he’s shaved more than two full runs off of his ERA and taken a step forward in each of the peripheral categories. However, he gives up a lot of contact, leaving him vulnerable to the vagaries of ball in play as well as the performance swings that tend to follow those who live on the margins.
The sinker is the lynchpin of Keuchel's arsenal, with subtle movement late in the flight path that adds a degree of difficulty to his modest readings on the radar gun. Batters are hitting just .224 against the sinker this season, with an isolated power of .093. Opposing hitters have fared even worse against the slider, with a .143 average and just three extra-base hits, and Keuchel has finished 49 of his 83 strikeouts with the pitch. Thrown with a 1-to-7 shape, the breaking ball features sharp movement despite slow-break velocity, and he has shown a preference to bury the pitch when he has two strikes on the batter.
The changeup is still a work in progress that Keuchel uses almost exclusively against right-handed batters, and the cutter shows up occasionally to give hitters another trajectory to consider. He shows no tendency toward throwing the cutter based on the count or the handedness of the batter. Everything that the left-hander throws has subtle movement, sometimes getting a little arm-side run or a bit of downward movement, as well as the occasional bite to the glove side. The sinker is a great weapon when behind in the count, allowing him to throw fastballs for the sake of accuracy but with enough movement to coax weak contact and get out of jams.
Mechanics Report Card
The overall stability is similar to last season, though the individual grades for balance and posture went in opposite directions. Keuchel added a bit of drop to his drive to ding his balance grade, but he finishes with a more consistent spine angle than in 2014. His posture occasionally flashes a 60, and it’s reasonable to expect him to make improvements in the stability department as he ages.
The biggest change from 2013 to this season has been to Keuchel's momentum. Last season, he had a pedestrian pace to the plate that featured a slowdown of his stride just before foot strike, and the inconsistent speeds teamed up with a large time window to complicate his efforts to repeat the delivery. He has picked up the pace this season, and though the increase in kinetic energy came paired with the aforementioned balance-drop, the net result is a massive upgrade to his momentum and repetition at minimal cost to his stability. He is about 0.10–0.15 seconds quicker into foot strike, and he now has a fluid tempo of acceleration rather than a roller-coaster approach to momentum, which has helped Keuchel leap over the fat part of the bell curve to have above-average repetition at the major-league level.
The quicker pace also makes it easier for Keuchel to coordinate his delivery from the stretch, bringing the two time signatures closer together. That benefit still doesn't excuse him from the silly practice of using a slide step from the stretch, a tactic made all the more futile by the stretch-related advantages that his left-handedness confers.
McHugh missed a good number of bats in the minors, with a career rate of 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings on the farm, but his sudden jump above 10 K's per nine surpasses anything that he posted in the minors—and he's doing it against the best ballplayers in the world. It's a small sample, so the magnets of regression are in play to pull his numbers closer to the mean, but McHugh was a legitimate K-per-inning guy in the minors, and his current homer rate is right in line with what he posted in the bus leagues.
McHugh has displayed above-average velocity this season, and though his raw pitch speed may not stand out, his story adds intrigue when one considers that his velo is on an upward trend. There are sample-size caveats given his limited MLB time in previous seasons, but PITCHf/x has the fastball sitting 1.5 mph higher than in 2013, on average, and nearly two full ticks above his late-season cameo of 2012. The pitch also plays up thanks to the speed differential from his slider and curve, each of which is used liberally, as he features a true three-pitch mix against batters from both sides of the plate. The diverse repertoire allows McHugh to take advantage of Effective Velocity when locating his pitches, and the Astros in particular have intimate knowledge of EV thanks to their ties to Perry Husband.
The curve and the slider have very different shapes and speeds, yet all of his pitches come out of the hand on a fastball plane to help disguise their identity. Batters have struggled to recognize McHugh's offerings until it’s too late, resulting in plenty of backwards K's and confused looks, particularly on breaking pitches. The curve has been hell on opposing hitters, who are a combined 3-for-64 (.047) with 40 strikeouts in at-bats that end with the hammer; oddly, two of the three knocks against his curveball have resulted in triples. The slider is mixed in any count or situation, against batters on either side of the plate, with no consistent usage pattern for batters to detect. He also takes a changeup out of his pocket against lefties, giving him a four-pitch repertoire when he has the platoon disadvantage.
Mechanics Report Card
McHugh carries an impressive combination of power and stability in his delivery, with a mechanical signature that includes a dose of deception. His pattern of momentum has a hint of the three-speed pace of Clayton Kershaw, with an early hip-lead toward the plate as he executes the lift phase before he momentarily halts his forward momentum as the leg comes down from its apex; McHugh then charges forward with a late burst toward the plate. Such an abrupt style can create obstacles to repetition, and McHugh has occasionally battled his timing this season, but his mechanical baselines combine with his uphill learning curve to make me optimistic that he can continue to hone his delivery.
His lateral balance is impeccable, maintaining a stable head above his center-of-mass throughout the delivery, culminating in excellent posture at release point. The result is a low-3/4 arm slot, and though his slinging arm action and low trajectory might be a turn-off for some evaluators, it looks as though McHugh's delivery is right in line with his personal signature. He exhibits a strong delay of trunk rotation, which combines with a scapular load and some twist with the upper-half to create plus torque, though he does run the risk of elbow drag when the arm is late in the kinetic sequence. Interestingly, McHugh exhibits a bigger delay of rotation on breaking pitches, increasing his hip-shoulder separation and trusting supination and grip to create action on the ball.