Improved fielding helped lift Keuchel

Dallas Keuchel emerged as a solid pitcher and fielder in 2014. AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

There were a number of factors in Houston Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel’s major improvements in 2014.

Keuchel went from a 5.15 ERA in 2013 to a 2.93 ERA in 2014 by increasing his ground-ball rate and posting considerably better ratios in strikeouts, walks and home runs. He made mechanical adjustments that made his sinking fastball harder to see, netting much more soft contact.

But there was another factor that helped a bit that might have gone unnoticed -- Keuchel’s defense.

Keuchel won the Fielding Bible Award for 2014 as the game’s best defensive pitcher, as voted on by a panel of experts who included sabermetrician Bill James, ex-major leaguer Doug Glanville, and this author. He’s a finalist for the AL’s Gold Glove Award at the position, along with Mark Buehrle and Felix Hernandez. The Gold Glove winners will be announced Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2

Dallas Keuchel- Career

“I’m humbled to be mentioned with Mark Buehrle and King Felix,” Keuchel said by phone last week. “Pitchers are often deemed the unathletic guys, but Buehrle and I are trying to get that stigma off. Buehrle is like a human highlight reel. You don’t hear that said often about pitchers.

“When you’re growing up, if you’re a good pitcher, you know how to pitch. But being a total pitcher is about defense, too. It’s not just about you dominating.”

Keuchel led all pitchers with 10 Defensive Runs Saved. If we take that figure literally, it means he saved himself almost half a run on his season ERA.

What did Keuchel do so well?

Two things stood out.

He led the majors in assists by a pitcher with 47. The only other AL pitcher with more than 30 was Sonny Gray with 41.

Keuchel also allowed only one stolen base in 200 innings (a steal of third by Coco Crisp of the Athletics). The only pitchers who qualified for the ERA title to better that were Doug Fister and Hisashi Iwakuma, who yielded none.

In both cases, Keuchel’s numbers improved considerably from the previous season. His assist total from 2013 (24) nearly doubled in only 50 more innings of work (thanks to plays like this -- in which Keuchel benefited from his time as a high school quarterback who was adept at hitting targets). The stolen bases dropped from the seven he allowed in 2013 (one every 22 innings).

“The last couple of years, I’ve tried to focus on anything [hit that] I can get to, I want to get,” Keuchel said “If I can field those swinging bunts and get outs, that’s one less guy to have to worry about. I’ve [also] had a lot of success snagging ground balls up the middle. I’m blessed to have quick reflexes.”

“[With basestealing], I think it’s the fear of the pickoff move. I slide step now, and my time to home plate is pretty good. Last year I was 1.4 seconds. This year, I was 1.1. Two years ago, I was 50-50 slide step (versus big leg kick), but now I’m so much more comfortable with it, I probably use it 99 percent of the time. Most of the time, though, guys don’t get too far off the base against me.”

Judging pitcher defense is a little different now than it used to be. One former major league pitcher once told me that he thought managers and pitchers used to vote based on which pitcher had the most innings pitched among those with no errors. Now, there is much more data made available on which decisions can be made.

“I would look at a pitcher who makes the easy plays look easy,” Keuchel said. “I don’t know that I’d look at errors, because official scoring [has its issues]. I would want a guy who can make the spectacular play, too, but guys who can consistently field their position and cover the first-base line and the third-base line. But I’m glad I’m not in position to vote.”

Winning a Gold Glove Award would carry significance, given that one of Keuchel’s all-time favorite players has more of them than anyone else.

“It would mean a lot,” Keuchel said. “Growing up, the former Braves catcher, Charlie O’Brien, was a family friend. I can remember going to Atlanta in 1995 and getting to meet Greg Maddux [who won 18 Gold Gloves]. He was always in position to field. Nothing got by him. He was like a cat. I always thought it would be cool to be in position like that.”