Through nine starts with the Houston Astros, Dallas Keuchel is 5-2 with a 2.92 ERA and a 55/12 K/BB in 62 innings. The ERA isn't a fluke; the components support it, giving him a 2.83 FIP and a 2.69 xFIP. He's not just getting lucky with the ERA; he's having a genuinely great year.
Who is Dallas Keuchel?
He was a pitcher at the University of Arkansas for three seasons. After spotty freshman and sophomore campaigns, his 2009 junior year (9-3, 3.92 ERA, 69/32 K/BB in 108 innings) was enough for him to be drafted in the seventh round. He was excellent in the New York-Penn League after signing, posting a 2.70 ERA and the following comment in the 2010 Baseball Prospect Book:
Keuchel was drafted out of the University of Arkansas in the seventh round last June. A finesse lefty, he has mediocre velocity at 86-90 MPH, but his fastball has some sinking action and he throws strikes with it. His curveball is okay, but his changeup is very good and makes his other pitches work better. He performed well in the New York-Penn League, with an impressive K/BB ratio showcasing his command, but his K/IP ratio wasn’t great and he’ll have to prove that he can handle higher levels. Scouts speak highly of his work ethic and mound presence, which helps, but as with all pitchers in his category, the real test will come in Double-A. Grade C.
In '10 he posted a 3.36 ERA in the pinball machine at Lancaster in the California League with a nice 97/25 K/BB in 125 innings, followed by a 4.70 ERA in nine starts for Double-A Corpus Cristi, leading to the following comment in the '11 book:
Keuchel survived, even thrived, in the Nintendoish environment of Lancaster last year. He wasn’t as effective after moving up to Double-A, but overall it was a successful campaign that seems unfairly overlooked to me. Keuchel’s velocity is nothing impressive at 86-89 MPH, but his fastball sinks well, giving him a 2.49 GO/AO last year, and he locates it with precision. He has a very good changeup. His curveball and slider are mediocre, and will need to be improved if he wants to remain a starter as he moves up. If you see improvements in his K/IP ratio, think about him as a good sleeper pickup. Grade C.
2011 resulted in a sharp 3.17 ERA in 20 starts for Corpus Christi with a 76/27 K/BB in 121 innings. Promoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City, he got knocked around with a 7.50 ERA and 52 hits in 32 innings over seven starts. Still, he performed well enough to rate a comment in the '12 book:
Keuchel held his own in Double-A last year, but found the going more difficult in Triple-A, although I caught one of his starts for Oklahoma City and he looked pretty good, showing excellent pitchability. He pitched in the Arizona Fall League and posted a 5.08 ERA, giving up 36 hits in 28 innings, but with a stellar 22/1 K/BB ratio. Keuchel’s best pitch is a decent changeup. He’ll mix in some curves and sliders, but his fastball is just 85-88 MPH, so he has to be very careful about location. He could be a fifth starter or long reliever, throwing strikes with his sinker and changeup. Grade C.
He ended up making 15 starts for the Astros in '12 and performed like a Grade C prospect, with a 5.27 ERA and a poor 38/39 K/BB in 85 innings. He was more effective in '13 however; although his ERA was still high at 5.15 in 154 innings, there was a dramatic improvement in his strikeout ratio, resulting in a 123/52 K/BB, his K/9 going from 4.1 in '12 to 7.2 last year. And as noted he's greatly improved this season.
Keuchel hasn't started throwing 97 MPH all of a sudden: he's at 85-92 with his fastball, averaging about 89, which is very similar to what he was doing in the minors, perhaps just a hair faster. He changes speeds effectively with his slider and changeup, and scouts have always respected his pitching instincts.
If you look at his career, you will see a pattern: when he reaches a new level, he often struggles initially but makes some adjustments and ends up performing very well in the end. It happened in college; it happened when he reached Double-A; it happened when he reached Triple-A, and it is now happening in the majors.
Is it sustainable? His lack of plus velocity gives him little margin for error and the game can fall apart quickly for finesse pitchers. But that said, Keuchel's track record of adaption to competition, consistent improvement when faced with challenges, ability to cope with failure, and the sharp increase in his strikeout rate are good signs.