What turns you on? No, not in that way; I’m talking metaphorically. What gets you going when watching a pitcher dominate? It’s likely a nasty slider or upper-90s heat or some other diabolical swing-and-miss pitch. But every once in a while, you’ll run into someone who likes it a little different.
“Strikeouts are definitely sexy,” Dallas Keuchel recently told me. “The baseball gurus love strikeouts and rightfully so. It’s nice to have a game where you strike out more hitters than innings pitched. But I’m trying to throw complete games. I want to look back on my career and see a lot of complete games. The strikeouts will come, but if I see complete games, that’s what turns me on, I guess.”
If that’s the case, then Keuchel is probably a bit hot and bothered with his performance of late. After leading the league in complete games last year with five, he has two this season (behind only Mark Buerle’s three) and is tops in baseball with 94 2/3 innings pitched. And Keuchel gets deep into games by doing one thing better than anyone else: inducing groundballs. Keuchel is second in groundball percentage this season, at 64 percent, behind only Brett Anderson, and of all qualified starters, he leads the decade with a 59.5 percent rate.
His manager, A.J. Hinch, has seen these worm-burning ways before. Hinch was in the Diamondbacks' front office when former Cy Young winner Brandon Webb, the leader in groundball percentage in the 2000s, was at the top of his game.
“I’m not big on classifying guys because I don’t want to put expectations on a guy, but I also don’t want to limit them,” Hinch said when asked if Keuchel reminded him of Webb. “He could be better (than Webb). He’s got a chance; he’s certainly as consistent as any elite pitcher in baseball. That has been very noteworthy from the day that I met him with how he goes about it and how competitive he is. The games he’s pitched, it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t in control of the game. I’m sure there was a time or two where things got away from him, but when you have a hard time remembering difficult innings for a guy, that means he’s having a pretty good year.”
And Keuchel certainly is having a great season thus far. He’s improved upon his strong 2.93 ERA from last year, dropping it over a run to a spiffy 1.90, good for third in the AL, and he leads his league with a 0.95 WHIP. When it comes to the advanced stats, of pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings this season, he’s third in the game in DRA (1.79) and leads all pitchers in WARP (3.6).
So while Hinch’s suggestion that Keuchel could reach Webb’s level seems like hyperbole at first blush, perhaps it’s not too farfetched. At his best, Webb did strike out hitters slightly better than the league average, while Keuchel has sat a tick below the last two years. However, that consistency Hinch speaks of is certainly there, as Keuchel has gone at least six innings in each of his 13 starts this year and only failed to do so three times in his 29 starts last season.
If Keuchel seems like an unlikely Cy Young candidate, it’s because he is. Just two years ago, he was in the midst of his second-straight season with an ERA above 5.00 and looking less like an ace and more like a fifth starter about to lose his spot in the rotation. But in 2014, things changed drastically. Keuchel reduced his four-seam usage, abandoned his curveball altogether, and relied more heavily on his bread-and-butter sinker.
“I caught myself getting beat with my third- or fourth-best pitch in years past,” Keuchel said. “I just told myself back in 2013 that I don’t want to get beat with my secondary stuff. If it’s going to happen, I want to get beat with my best stuff. Starting last year I decided I was going to live and die by my best pitch and that’s my two-seam. It’s what I go to in big situations—I don’t always go to it, but that’s the pitch I feel most comfortable with and ever since the start of last year that’s been my go-to pitch.”
According to Brooks Baseball, Keuchel’s sinker usage has gone from 37 percent in 2013 to 45 percent last season to 54 percent this year. So when the Astros’ lefty says it’s his go-to, he’s not exaggerating. And the fact is it works for him. Over the last two years, 76 percent of the sinkers he’s thrown that are put in play end up on the ground, tops in baseball. When we think of pitchers who are able to induce groundballs at such a high rate while also finding such extreme success, names like Webb, Tim Hudson, or Derek Lowe come to mind. The common theme with those pitchers is that they’re righties, making Keuchel kind of a rare breed (although Brett Anderson is trying to give him a run for his money).
“I think stylistically, you don’t see that out of left-handers as often as you do right-handers. I think that’s unique,” Hinch said. “Mike Hampton did that back in the day, Buehrle induced quite a bit of ground balls when he was (in Chicago) as a dominant left-handed pitcher. I think part of what makes Dallas unique is that he’s a lefty and doing it in a way that not all left-handers can do.”
Keuchel acknowledged this as well, and said he takes pride in the fact that people have compared him to the likes of Buehrle and Tom Glavine. But that hasn’t stopped him from wanting to pull from other arms who he’s admired from afar. Keuchel said he has tried to take “bits and pieces” from the likes of Cliff Lee and his favorite pitcher growing up, John Smoltz. Of course the latter is not much like Keuchel himself, but that hasn’t stopped the 27-year-old from trying to get to new heights.
“It’s a work in progress, but those are some guys I’m shooting for,” Keuchel said matter of factly.
And while he may be looking for ways to improve, Keuchel realizes his success stems from his ability to induce the grounder. He even pointed out that “in this era of stats and sabermetrics, groundballs are valued.” (Shh, nobody tell him that early theories of DIPS didn’t give pitchers much credit for getting the groundball.) But Keuchel wasn’t always so sure of himself and his special skill set. He didn’t just suddenly realize that grounders were his best way too success; it took a while before he could really trust himself and rely on his defense.
“I think in years past there hasn’t been 100 percent trust (in his sinker and his defense) and I think that comes with maturity,” Keuchel said. “I wasn’t the most mature pitcher when I first came up, I’ll be the first to admit that. I’m still a work in progress, but I do have 100 percent trust in everyone behind me. When I take the ball they know that there’ll be some groundballs hit. I also do take pride in weak contact, I think that kind of offsets the lack of strikeouts. Guys know that the ball’s going to be in play and they have to be on their toes. I think they like that when I’m on the mound. I take pride in that as well.”
Keuchel pointed to his parents—who instilled in him a love for the game and hammer home just how lucky he is to be in the position he’s in—for helping him develop the mental strength that’s become so essential for him. He echoed what many in the game will tell anyone who will listen: This sport will humble even the best. It took time for him to get to the point where he didn’t panic on the inside in tough situations and really trust those around him to pick him up when needed.
“I think what happens with these players is they start to believe they’re supposed to be here,” Hinch said. “They gain success and as they gain success they gain confidence. I wasn’t here when he broke into the big leagues or when he broke through last year, but there’s a calmness that comes around players once they feel established, as if they realize that this is the level they’re supposed to be at and they can compete against anybody. And as that confidence grows it’s exciting to watch them grow professionally as players.”
That growth is something the Astros can certainly use at the moment. After a hot start to the season, Houston finds itself in its first real tough stretch of the year, having lost seven straight heading into play on Friday. As they struggle to stay in first place in the AL West, Hinch said the younger players will need to lean on those who bring a stable presence.
Just a few years ago, Keuchel certainly wouldn’t even be mentioned as someone a playoff-caliber team could rely on to give a strong performance every time he takes the mound. However, Keuchel’s name was the first that Hinch rattled off when discussing who precocious arms like Lance McCullers and Vincent Velasquez can look to during a rough stretch. Sometimes all it takes to get to this point is a little maturity. And a devastating sinker doesn’t hurt either.
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