This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2018.
When Dallas Keuchel made his major league debut for the Astros in 2012, he joined a team that had recorded 106 losses the previous season. But by 2015, the Astros were a playoff team -- and Keuchel was a star (not to mention a soon-to-be Cy Young winner). Fresh off a 2017 World Series win that even he found hard to believe, the pitcher posed for ESPN's Body Issue and talked about Houston's rebuild, the toll of playing professional baseball and, of course, That Beard. Here's Keuchel, in his own words:
The major league baseball season takes a bigger toll than what anybody could ever imagine -- and that's coming from a pitcher. The overhand throw is one of the most violent things on your body, even though you're not physically hitting anybody or getting hit.
I had a foot injury last year where I basically had to numb my foot up the last two months of the season just to get through each and every day. I was shooting my foot up during the World Series, I was in a walking boot, and that was probably the toughest two months of my career. That Game 7, I remember going into the training room and getting a shot in my foot and thinking, "I am so thankful that this is the last game of the season" because I don't know if I could have taken any more.
As a [position] player, I can't even imagine; guys go out each and every day for 162 games to get themselves ready to go and compete against some of the best pitchers in the world. Some of my teammates have been hurting from probably the first week of the season, and somehow, some way, they get themselves in and out of the lineup every day.
FEAR THE BEARD
The beard itself is a very superstitious thing. It started with a couple of buddies of mine daring me to grow my beard out. I usually have two, three weeks' worth of beard and that's it. It's usually pretty clean-shaved and lined up. But at the end of the 2013 season, they dared me [to grow it out] for the whole season. And after I've done this for six months or more now, I'm like, "I should just see where it goes."
I just can't see myself getting rid of it. It reflects my personality, kind of in between the hipster and the burly, Paul Bunyan-esque dude. I did say I would think about shaving it if we won the World Series, so now everybody's on my case about shaving it. I've had a few good offers, and if the price is right I would match that offer for charity and it would go to a very, very good cause.
I comb it for 10, 20 minutes a day -- it's pretty absurd when you really think about it. Like, I spend more time on my beard than I do on anything else, pretty much. I use beard oils, shampoo, conditioner -- I mean, I treat it like a kid. It's its own person.
ON BULKING UP AND FEELING GOOD
This offseason I gained 15 to 18 pounds, and I honestly feel like I'm a rookie now -- my body feels that good. That was what the offseason this past year was about. I felt like I wasn't nourishing and taking care of my body as best as I could. I felt like I wasn't eating enough. When you're at the field from noon, 1 o'clock in the afternoon to 10 p.m., 11 p.m., you're burning a lot of calories. That requires a lot more food, a lot more hydration, and I didn't think about that for the longest time. I had been hurt the last two years, so I was really trying to figure out how I could combat inflammation and injury. And this was one of the things that was brought to the forefront of my mind by a few people. When I started trying to hydrate as much as possible and nourish my body with food four, five, six times through the day with snacks in between -- sure enough, the weight started adding on, but I was feeling better and better.
It's not all clean food -- I'm not trying to be the leanest, most fit person; I enjoy a burger, some fries, ice cream, all that stuff. And as a baseball player, if I'm pitching 35 times a season, seven innings a pop, 100 pitches a game, I need some fat, I need some extra meat on my body.
I say being a left-handed pitcher is almost like cheating. Growing up, I never threw the fastest, I never hit the ball the longest. Being left-handed afforded me the luxury to throw slower, but I could spot up. I could throw to both sides of the plate. And it's amazing: Scouts, coaches, even other parents are like, "How does your son do this or that?" I still don't throw the hardest -- I never have, never will. But I'm good at doing the basic things and the ordinary things very well.
I'm very confident in my ability to do my job correctly, but in major league baseball, you're competing against the best players in the world, one through nine. And every hitter is different. Every player has a red zone, where they're not very good, and they have a hot zone, where they can hit. And it's your job to mix and match to feel like you have the advantage getting the hitter out.
In 2015 [Keuchel's Cy Young season], my body and my mind were just in sync with what I was trying to do each and every day. I've always tried to repeat my mechanics every pitch. Now, that's not physically possible, but when you try to trick your mind into repetition after repetition, I felt like I could go out and play catch. I wouldn't even have to think about it. That allowed myself to gain confidence in every start.
We made the playoffs in 2015, and then a couple of weeks later, I get the call that I won the Cy Young. So that year couldn't have been any better for me, just the amount of work I've put in through the course of the 26 years prior, and I know my family was very proud of me, but I owed them a lot for my success as well.
ON THE ASTROS' JOURNEY
You can't fully rebuild without having a few players from the current organization grow and prosper into young stars, and that's what happened with the Astros. I was a seventh-rounder, 221st overall. There were 220 players drafted ahead of me that, based on draft position, were supposed to be better than me. Obviously, seven years in, a lot of people would say that's not the case anymore. But it goes to say it doesn't matter who it is, where you were drafted, if you got a chance to make the most of it.
We took our lumps for a long time and I never once thought about us winning the World Series because it was never in the realm. It was like I physically could not wrap my mind around that because of how bad it was to watch us play. But sure enough, it started coming together in 2015. I looked up, we're in the playoffs. And I don't toot my own horn that much, but I was a big part of it. There were a couple of other players who were big parts of the team as well. We were playing the Royals in Game 5, and they ended up winning the World Series that year, and we almost took them out.
And then the World Series happened last year. Last year definitely trumps '15 -- even with my Cy Young. I will trade an individual accomplishment any day of the week for another World Series. I was floating on cloud nine for the longest time, and I hope to get that feeling again -- or a couple more times.
For more from the 2018 Body Issue, pick up a copy on newsstands starting June 29.
Set Design by Robbie Dalley; Grooming by Jessica Lindsay