Keuchel develops into core Astro
The rise of the Houston Astros to the top of the American League West has been documented as a to-hell-and-back journey in which 100-loss seasons yielded high draft picks, in which best-in-thegame prospects such as shortstop Carlos Correa and outfielder George Springer are arriving to fit in among productive veterans such as second baseman Jose Altuve and an expertly assembled bullpen.
Internally, such development has been expected by General Manager Jeff Luhnow and his staff. But to get to this point this fast— just a season and a half removed from a year in which they lost 111 games — the Astros had to have some unexpected good fortune, too.
Enter Dallas Keuchel, seventh-round draft choice in 2009, owner of a 5.20 ERA in his first two major league seasons — and contender to be the American League starting pitcher in next month’s All-Star Game.
“I don’t think any of us could honestly say we would have predicted this development from the beginning of last year until now,” Luhnow said late last month. “But the credit goes to Dallas. He’s made himself into a pitcher who can dominate.”
Thursday night, in his 16th start of the season, Keuchel allowed six singles in a 4-0 shutout of the New York Yankees in which he walked one and struck out 12. The outing lowered his ERA to 2.17 — which trails only Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer (2.01) and Oakland’s Sonny Gray (2.09) in the American League. His third complete game and second shutout gave him 1161/ innings pitched in his 16 starts, most in the majors, and his walks-and-hits per inning pitched dropped to 0.963, just a tick behind Archer for the best number in the AL.
“He doesn’t want to come out of the game,” veteran reliever Pat Neshek said. “I think that’s my favorite characteristic about him. He wants that ball. He doesn’t want anybody to come in. His goal is to try to pitch a complete game under 100 pitches. That’s his goal.”
His complete games this year have been of 98 (albeit of the eight-inning variety in a loss at Baltimore), 113 and 116 pitches, and he is remarkably efficient. Only two pitchers in all of baseball average fewer than his 14.6 pitches per inning. And while last year, in establishing himself as a potential front-of-the-rotation piece by posting a 2.93 ERA in 200 innings, he used his slider as his out pitch, this year he’s mixed in a change-up as an out pitch. But it starts, he said, with a fastball that is scarcely overpowering.
“I know some of the analytics guys were preaching last year about how well I was hitting down and away and then inside as well with my fastball,” Keuchel said. “And I think a lot of that has to do with the feel that I have in the last year and a half. Pitching’s all about feel. The better feel you have, the better location you’re going to put on the ball, and so on.”
Feel can be elusive. Keuchel’s, this year, has been consistent. In 11 of his 16 starts, he has allowed two or fewer earned runs. He leads the AL by allowing only 6.3 hits per nine innings, leaving opponents with a best-in-the-AL .193 batting average and a .515 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. “I have guys that, in the batter’s box, tell me how uncomfortable of an at-bat he is because there’s movement on everything,” Astros catcher Jason Castro said. “He’s had really good stuff ever since he came up. It’s just the mentality and the way he goes about his game plan and has kind of evolved and got him to where he is now.”
That kind of mirrors the rise of the Astros as a whole. Keuchel believes, had he been with another organization, he might not have been able to learn at the major league level as he did in 2012 and 2013. What all of baseball is seeing — or will almost certainly see at some point in the All-Star Game, even if it’s not in the first inning — is approaching a finished product.
“I’ve played with some great guys — Johan Santana, Adam Wainwright,” said the well-traveled Neshek, in his first year in Houston. “He reminds me of what Santana was doing in his prime.”
There are questions about the Astros’ rotation over the course of the summer. Mark Appel, the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, remains in the minors, and only Collin McHugh has joined Keuchel and made each of his turns thus far— and McHugh has done so with a 4.80 ERA. But what Keuchel has done has given the Astros an area about which they don’t have to worry or watch develop. He’s here, and he’s staying.
“We couldn’t have asked any more of him,” Luhnow said. “He’s one of the guys we gave an opportunity when times were tough, and so far it has worked out better than we could have hoped.”
Dallas Keuchel is third in the AL with a 2.17 ERA. “The better feel you have, the better location you’re going to put on the ball, and so on,” he said.