Houston Astros left-handed starter Dallas Keuchel started the 2015 All-Star Game for the American League last night. He certainly deserved the honor, going 11-4, 2.23 ERA, ERA+ 175, in the first half with a 113/34 K/BB in a league-leading 137 innings.
As most of you know, Dallas Keuchel wasn't exactly a household name when he was coming up through the minors, yet here he is as one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Okay, so where did this guy come from?
Keuchel 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 change-up 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.. His FIP was much better at 4.25 and his xFIP even better at 3.58.
As you know he kept the momentum last year (2.93 ERA, 3.21 FIP 146/48 K/BB in 200 innings) and has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this year.
There are several factors involved in his improvement.
***His fastball is a little better. He used to throw 85-89 MPH but his peak velocities have picked up a bit, topping at 93 nowadays. That doesn't sound like much but it adds some extra slots for him to exploit in the useable velocity band.
***Watching him now compared to when I first saw him in college, his breaking pitches look somewhat sharper too. They used to just kind of roll up there but there is a bit more bite now. He always had the change-up and always threw strikes, so even small improvements in velocity and movement with his other pitches make a difference.
***Keuchel himself credits sabermetric analysis for helping him improve.
"I think the sabermetric people have helped me out a lot, just based on my exit velocity and all of those stats. Because everybody in their dog keeps asking me in how I'm leading me in weak contact (and) ground-ball ratio and all of that stuff. With all of that talk, it helps me out as well just to know that other people appreciate the work that 'non-strikeout' pitchers are doing in the league. I think Zack [Greinke] would say the same thing."
***Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs points out that Keuchel controls the running game exceptionally well. He also helps himself with excellent personal defense around the mound, winning a Gold Glove last year and completely deserving it according to Sullivan's analysis.
If you look at Keuchel's career going back to college there is a clear 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 happened in the majors.
Keuchel's adaptability and intelligence maximize his physical tools, a key advantage in the Darwinian environment of professional baseball.