I love Dallas Keuchel. He's not big, he doesn't throw hard, he has that beard that says he just spent four months in the Amazon searching for the Lost City of Z and he majored in apparel studies in college at Arkansas, one of the least likely people you would have figured to be an apparel studies major.
Keuchel starts Thursday night at Yankee Stadium in the opening game of a four-game series between the 23-11 Houston Astros and 21-10 New York Yankees, an early tussle in which both teams will want to puff out their chests a bit to prove they're a team to beat in the American League.
I'm more excited for Dallas Keuchel vs Aaron Judge tomorrow than I've been for a regular season baseball game in May, in decades.
— Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) May 11, 2017
Keuchel is 5-0 with a 1.88 ERA, has held batters to a .179 average and has pitched at least seven innings in each of his seven starts. In other words, Keuchel looks a lot like the pitcher who won the Cy Young Award in 2015.
Except he's not exactly the same pitcher.
Check out his pitch location heat maps from 2015, 2016 and 2017:
In his Cy Young season, he consistently pounded the outside corner. You can't see it on the heat map, but the approach was similar to both right-handed batters and left-handed batters: low and away, using his four-pitch repertoire (fastball, changeup, slider, cutter).
In 2016, he pitched up in the zone too often and missed the final month of the season with left shoulder inflammation. Not surprisingly, in spring training, Keuchel acknowledged he had pitched throughout the season with pain that started in spring training of 2016, following a season in which he led the AL in innings pitched.
"It was basically I tried to pitch through an injury I should have said something with, and I learned my lesson," he said in February. "If you say something from the beginning, you'll be better off. That's something that I'll do."
With Keuchel healthy again after an offseason of rest, the 2017 heat map shows he is pounding the bottom of the strike zone even more than he did in 2015, but he's also mixing his location a bit more, relying less on that outside corner. Check out some of his pitch location percentages:
Lower third of the zone
2015: 56.1 percent
2016: 55.6 percent
2017: 72.1 percent
Inner half of the zone
2015: 36.2 percent
2016: 40.5 percent
2017: 42.0 percent
One thing that hasn't changed is that Keuchel is still trying to get batters to chase pitches out of the strike zone. Of 102 qualified starting pitchers, Keuchel ranks 97th in percentage of pitches that are actually in the zone, at just 41.8 percent. Hitters know this is Keuchel's approach -- they have a fairly low swing rate against him -- but like Tom Glavine back in the day, Keuchel is the master of deception. It looks like a strike, then it isn't, and the batter rolls a weak grounder to the infield. It helps when you're getting movement like this:
59 seconds with Dallas Keuchel's Movement/Command. pic.twitter.com/rhA4ruZ8kH
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 5, 2017
So, everything at the knees, with movement. That's why Keuchel induces so much weak contact despite a fastball that sits at 88-89 mph. He's also willing to throw any pitch at any time. Check out this graphic from Daren Willman of MLB Statcast:
Dallas Keuchel throws every pitch he has on 3-2... pic.twitter.com/Tsqx5nkI41
— Daren Willman (@darenw) May 11, 2017
Most pitchers still have to rely on their fastball to set up the off-speed pitches, in Keuchel's case a two-seam sinker. The best hope for batters is that he leaves one up in the zone (probably not) or one flattens out (once in a while, as he has allowed six home runs, including four off fastballs).
So sit back and enjoy Thursday's game, with the art of pitching on display.