Astros relying on Dallas Keuchel's home-field advantange against Royals

HOUSTON -- With his performance in 2015, Dallas Keuchel served notice that Dallas is only his second favorite city in Texas.

Keuchel, the Houston Astros' bearded wonder, emerged as an American League Cy Young candidate through a combination of superb command, baseball's best groundball-to-fly ball ratio and an amazing synergy with Minute Maid Park. He posted a 15-0 record with a 1.46 ERA in Houston, and his brilliance was every bit as impressive in the flesh as it was on paper.

Asked to recount how it felt to watch Keuchel stifle one opponent after another at home this year, Astros manager A.J. Hinch paused and said, "I'm trying to remember when were the runs that he gave up."

When Keuchel takes on Kansas City's Edinson Volquez in Game 3 of the American League Division Series on Sunday (with the winner going up 2-1 in the series), it will pose a clear challenge for the Royals. But the Kansas City hitters can take comfort in the rather extensive list of elite pitchers they've vanquished over the past six months.

Keuchel threw eight shutout innings in a 4-0 victory over Kansas City on June 30, only to get pummeled for 10 hits in 6 2/3 innings in a return engagement four weeks later. With that 5-1 loss, he joined lots of other brand-name starters to take their lumps against Kansas City this season.

Cleveland's Corey Kluber, the defending AL Cy Young winner, went 1-4 with a 4.36 ERA against the Royals, while Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, Chris Archer, Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, John Lackey, Lance Lynn and Johnny Cueto (the Cincinnati version) all suffered losses at the hands of Ned Yost's team.

"You just take each guy individually and you have your game plan and approach on how you want to attack them," Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "As a team, we've done a good job against some of these big-name guys. Dallas is no different. We'll have a game plan going in and just try to execute it as best we can."

Keuchel is far from the classic, top-of-the-rotation dominator. He ranked 65th among 78 qualifying MLB starters in fastball velocity this season with an average gun reading of 89.6 mph, according to research from FanGraphs. But he also tied for 27th in the majors with a swinging strike rate of 10.3 percent. For sake of comparison, Cole, Jake Odorizzi and Cueto all generated a lower rate of swings and misses.

"Obviously he's not going to blow the doors off anybody on the radar gun, but he doesn't need to," Houston catcher Jason Castro said. "Guys look out there and see numbers right around 90, and it almost lulls them into a false sense of security. And then he takes advantage with his incredible late movement. Hitters face guys like Dallas and say, ‘Man, I thought I saw the ball pretty well.' But they don't get hits off him.'"

In the parlance of the craft, Keuchel's fastball "plays up" because his location is so precise and he hides the ball well enough that hitters have trouble seeing it out of his hand.

"You look up and he's throwing 89 or 90 or 91, or whatever it is, but it doesn't play like a true 90-mph fastball," Hosmer said. "He'll throw pitches that start out as strikes and then go out of the zone, and they're hard to lay off. And he throws all his off-speed pitches with that same arm action. It makes for a tough assignment."

Whether it's a comfort level with the Minute Maid mound or a fondness for sleeping in his own bed, Keuchel made some history with that gaudy home record. Before he went 15-0 this season, Boo Ferriss and Tex Hughson of the 1946 Boston Red Sox shared the record for most wins by an undefeated starter at home. They posted matching 13-0 marks at Fenway Park that season. Keuchel's 1.46 home ERA was the lowest by an AL pitcher since Nolan Ryan logged a 1.07 mark for the 1972 Angels.

Keuchel's home-road splits in 2014 were relatively even, so there's no evidence to suggest his mind-blowing numbers this year were more than just an aberration. For what it's worth, he gives a shout-out to Astros' fans for their support. Houston's attendance spiked by about 400,000 this season, to 2.15 million, thanks to the Astros' exciting push to the playoffs. All those extra cheers certainly struck a chord with Keuchel.

"As the crowds have gotten better and the support has gotten better, I think we've all played better," he said.

The Minute Maid Park roof will be closed and the air conditioning will be running Sunday when the Astros return home for the first time since Sept. 27. Dallas Keuchel will be in his element, and the Royals will have their work cut out for them.