Dallas Keuchel has reemerged as an ace for the Houston Astros this season, as he has posted a 1.71 ERA thus far and is yet to lose a game. He has an absurd 67.4% ground ball rate while still maintaining an 8.21 K/9 innings. Keuchel’s performance has been impressive, but his brilliant pitch repertoire may be even more impressive. Starters in the MLB essentially need at least three pitches. However, a lot rely on two pitches, while sprinkling in a third out of necessity. Possessing confidence in three pitches can be a commodity. But not only does Keuchel have three weapons, he has four pitches that he can effectively use.
It all starts with the two-seam fastball for the bearded ace, which he is throwing almost exactly 50% of the time this year. Hitters are slashing .179/.252/.291 against the pitch, and it’s drawing a GB% of 80.8%. Watch the pitch in live action:
The pitch sinks at the last second, dropping from Joey Rickard’s knees as it crosses the plate to nearly hitting the dirt. Rickard may not be the poster child for hitting, but there isn’t much you can do with that pitch. Even if it doesn’t have the ridiculous late sink, it puts hitters in a bind. It’s perfectly located down and away, so hitters have to reach to get the ball. Maybe you can send it to the opposite field, but Keuchel’s two-seam generally comes in below 90 mph, so a hitter is gonna have to put a hard swing on that to get a solid line drive. And with they way it keeps guys off balance, hard swings usually aren’t finding that pitch.
But that is just one pitch, you say. Keuchel can’t replicate that perfection often. Well…
Keuchel rarely misses his spot with the two-seam, making it a dangerous ground ball/strikeout weapon for him. The two-seam is Keuchel’s most commonly seen fastball, but it is not his only one. He actually throws a cutter to accompany his fastball. The cutter is his least thrown pitch of the repertoire, but he still throws it 10.8% of the time. What’s rare here is the two-seam and cutter combo, as Keuchel is one of only four starters that throws the two-seam at least 25% of the time and the cutter at least 10% of the time.
His cutter is quite effective too, as hitters have a .174 average against it. Similar to the two-seam, Keuchel has great command of the pitch. He knows where he wants to throw it and, usually, he puts it right there. The cutter isn’t quite the ground-ball pitch that the two-seam is, but rather Keuchel uses it jam righties inside. The cutter has the highest infield fly-ball rate (20.0%) of his four-pitch arsenal.
Next is Keuchel’s slider, which he throws 22.2% of the time. Hitters are slashing just .125/.143/.208. His slider is incredibly effective, but it is also different than most sliders. In terms of vertical and horizontal movement, below is your average slider from a lefty:
Blake Snell’s slider breaks down and in, but now look at Keuchel’s slider:
Keuchel’s slider has a ton of horizontal movement, but has almost no downward break. It averages only half an inch of vertical movement. His command of the pitch isn’t nearly as pretty as the fastballs, but that makes sense considering it’s a breaking ball.
Last not but not least, Keuchel’s changeup, which he throws 12.7% of the time. The pitch has limited hitters to just a .233 slugging in 2017. And, like with any of his other pitches, Keuchel throws it where he wants to. Keuchel also kind of has a four-seam fastball, but the pitch is used very rarely and isn’t really part of repertoire.
But back to why I’m writing this in the first place. If you look back at the heat maps for all of Keuchel’s pitches, it’s pretty clear that, aside for elevating his changeup on occasion, Keuchel keeps everything low. All of his pitches consistently land across one plane at the bottom of the strike zone, covering every part of the plate from left to right. When you consider his slider is what it is, Keuchel essentially doesn’t have a true breaking ball. Why this is so odd is because every one of his pitches, in terms of vertical movement, moves in a straight line and lands in the same place every time.
However, every one of his pitches is moving side to side, so Keuchel never gives you anything straight up. They are always going to be cutting or fading. But Keuchel throws all of his pitches relatively slow, so they are not easy to discern based off velocity. If you combine that with the fact that all of his pitches are landing across the same plane and not breaking, it makes it incredibly hard to recognize his pitches.
Just to make it even harder on hitters, here is Keuchel’s pitch mix by count. It’s always going to be a heavy dose of two-seam fastballs, but any of his secondary pitches can be thrown at any time.
So, Keuchel can throw you four different pitches, that all look similar, at any time he wants and exactly where he wants to throw them. That sounds like a recipe for success. Keuchel’s pitch mix may be different, but it is about as effective as anybody’s. Despite extremely limited velocity and stuff, Keuchel remains one of the top pitchers in the game because his command and ability to mix pitches is truly beautiful.