This is the kind of road trip that can have a pretender believing it can become a contender: The Houston Astros went to Seattle and took two out of three; they went to Oakland and took three straight; then they went to San Diego and swept the Padres, finishing the road trip at 8-1 with a 7-2 victory on Wednesday behind Dallas Keuchel. The Astros outscored their opponents 66-33, hitting .284 and slugging .494 on the trip while limiting their opponents to a .211 average and .304 slugging percentage.
What a finish to a GREAT road trip... Nothing like home though! #Htown bound. Rasmus- "We grinderssssssssss"— Dallas Keuchel (@kidkeuchy) April 29, 2015
The Astros are 14-7, they've won 10 of their past 11, and while their offense is 2015 baseball on hyperdrive -- home runs and lots of strikeouts -- they may be in this race all season. One key reason: Keuchel has developed into one of the best starters in the American League.
He pitched eight innings Wednesday, allowing just three hits and one run while walking nobody. He's 3-0 with a 0.73 ERA, he's got that Grizzly Adams beard going, and while he's a departure from the current prototype ace who throws 95 mph and strikes everybody out, Keuchel gets the job done in that Tom Glavine school kind of way -- away, away, away, down, down, down.
Two years ago, nobody could have foreseen this. He'd gone 6-10 with a 5.15 ERA and allowed a .297 average. That was a bad Astros team -- they lost 111 games -- but it gave Keuchel the chance to pitch 150 innings in the majors and learn that a lefty with an 89 mph fastball better be precise with his location. Still, future projections for him would have suggested "bullpen arm."
Sometimes those bullpen arms become No. 1 starters.
Keuchel is a sinker/slider/changeup guy, mixing in a four-seamer and occasional cutter. He's ditched the curveball he used to throw. Even though he doesn't throw hard, his game has to revolve around the command of the fastball and sinker. Even a small improvement in location has led to a drastic improvement in results. Check out these graphics showing the percentage breakdown of his fastballs and sinkers versus right-handed batters in 2013, and to this point in 2015:
We see fewer pitches in the middle of the plate and a few more in the lower outside part of the strike zone (or just off the plate), that area that put Glavine into the Hall of Fame. As a result, right-handed batters no longer tee off against Keuchel's four-seamer and sinker:
Now, this isn't going to keep up all season; batters are hitting .130 against him overall, with a lowly .158 BABIP -- both unsustainable. But there are some real improvements in the works from last year, most notably that Keuchel's ground ball rate continues to increase, from 55.8 percent in 2013 to 63.5 percent in 2014 (the highest in the majors) to 69 percent so far this season. That's helped limit the home runs -- zero in his five starts -- and a reason he's had more double plays turned behind him than any pitcher since the start of 2014.
Stats analysts have debated the ability of pitchers to limit hard contact, but in Keuchel's case, evidence is mounting that this is a skill he possesses. We keep track of "hard-hit average," and last season Keuchel had the third-lowest hard-hit average among starters behind only Chris Sale and Garrett Richards, and he ranks seventh early on this year. Factor in that the Astros shift more than any other team and a lot of those grounders are gobbled up. The final package is a pitcher who may have only 22 strikeouts in 37 innings but is a legit ace, a guy with 12 consecutive quality starts going back to last season.
Are the Astros for real? I'd like to see more rotation depth behind Keuchel and Collin McHugh, as Scott Feldman is more of a 4/5 than a No. 3 and Roberto Hernandez is a wild card. The bullpen, a disaster in recent seasons, has been much improved. But the biggest question will be the sustainability of Houston's high-strikeout offense.
While teams like the Royals, Cardinals and Giants have tried to combat this era of pitching dominance by relying on contact hitters more than power -- the Red Sox tried a similar tactic this past offseason, bringing in good contact guys Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval -- the Astros have gone in the opposite direction. They'll live with the strikeouts if the home runs fly. George Springer, Chris Carter and Colby Rasmus are all in the top 10 in the majors in strikeouts and Evan Gattis isn't far behind. And that has created some problems: Springer, Carter and Gattis are all hitting under .200.
But it's working. The Astros have drawn 81 walks to 49 for their opponents; they've outhomered them 29-15; they have 28 steals to eight against. They're tied with the Orioles for the major league lead in home runs and rank eighth in the AL in runs scored, even though they're hitting .240, 18th in the majors. The offense has been OK and the positive in these early numbers is that only Jake Marisnick is outproducing his projections, with a nifty .389/.433/.648 line.
I liked the Astros heading into the season, predicting them to finish 82-80, higher than most projected records. Maybe I should have had the guts to pick them to reach the postseason.