Full disclosure: I am a Royals fan. Make your own decision on what you think that means for the rest of this article.
After yesterday's comeback victory by the Royals evened the ALDS at 2-2, I saw a few suggestions on Twitter that Dallas Keuchel should be brought out Madison Bumgarner Game 7 2014 World Series style. This is not a good idea for several reasons, perhaps the least of which is the difference between Game 5 of the ALDS and Game 7 of the World Series.
The Astros are just starting on their journey
This little bit of information has been floating around as part of the Astros playoff narrative - their record over the past several years. The last time the team had a winning record was 2008. In between then and now, the Astros had three years of 100+ loss seasons from 2011-2013 to land early draft picks and rebuild. The team finished 70-92 last season for an improvement, but most people still did not exactly prognosticate a playoff season for them. Finishing with an 86-76 record in 2015 after finishing with a 51-111 record in 2013 is an amazing turnaround, but it shows just how recently the team was not any good.
The Astros began this season with the third-youngest projected lineup in baseball. Jose Altuve turned just 25 at the beginning of the season, George Springer turned 26 only a few weeks ago, and shortstop phenom Carlos Correa is barely old enough to legally drink (turned 21 just a few weeks ago). When looking at their positions players sorted by plate appearances, the first player over 30 doesn't come until Jed Lowrie, who is 31 and ranked 12th in plate appearances on the team. It's a young lineup.
On the pitching side, Dallas Keuchel is 27, Collin McHugh is 28, and playoff starter Lance McCullers just turned 22. Vincent Velasquez, who is 23, got put into the bullpen after Scott Kazmir joined the team in a trade. Mike Fiers, Kazmir, and Scott Feldman are all over 30, but Kazmir is not under contract in 2016. The starters have some relative youth; it's the bullpen where the Astros show some age. Basically every reliever the Astros had during the regular season is now over 30, save the aforementioned Velasquez, who logged 17.2 innings in the bullpen.
The youth is there, and more is still to arrive. Only a few of the Astros preseason top 10 prospects graduated this year. They did end up trading a few of their prospects on that list in the Carlos Gomez trade, but several players on the original list are still intact.
The point is that the Astros do not have an aging core for which they need to sacrifice everything to capitalize on a final playoff opportunity. Their window is only just opening, and it looks like it will get wider before it closes. The Astros will need Keuchel in the coming years.
Keuchel's workload has been big
Keuchel threw 232 innings in 33 starts this year. Only Clayton Kershaw threw more innings. From 2010-2015 (an admittedly arbitrary date range), Keuchel's 2015 season ranks 26th by innings pitched.
Despite making his MLB debut in 2012, Keuchel has logged plenty of innings up until now.
Including MLB and MiLB innings, Keuchel's workload was relatively large before his debut, and it increased from 2013 to 2014 and from 2014 to 2015. However, Keuchel does not throw very hard. According to FanGraphs' PITCHf/x information, Keuchel's 89.6 mph average fastball velocity ranked 67th out of 78 qualified pitchers. It's possible that Keuchel can take the increased workload.
The innings stuff ignores Keuchel's most recent start, which was only on Sunday. Over seven innings, Keuchel threw 124 pitches. Were Keuchel to start Wednesday, he would be pitching on two days of rest after a stressful high-pitch outing.
Collin McHugh is also pretty good
McHugh took the ball last Thursday evening against the Royals in Game 1 of the ALDS and was able to hold the Royals in check. Over six innings, he gave up four hits and two runs. Only Kendrys Morales could do anything against him.
Overall, McHugh had another good regular season. With a 3.89 ERA / 3.58 FIP / 3.91 xFIP, McHugh gathered 3.9 fWAR over 203.2 innings. Somehow McHugh avoided facing the Royals in the regular season, but he's the kind of pitcher who can give the Royals trouble. McHugh did not strike out many KC batters on Thursday, but that's fine. McHugh is not much of a strikeout pitcher, and the Royals do not strike out much either. Both parties revolve around contact.
When it comes to contact, McHugh is quite excellent. He's not as good as Keuchel, but he's up there. Among qualified pitchers (78 total), McHugh ranked 10th highest in soft-hit rate and 9th lowest in hard-hit rate. Keuchel ranked third and first, respectively, in those metrics.
With McHugh relying on weak and not-hard contact to get outs, Kauffman is a perfect environment for him to succeed. McHugh does not generate ground balls like Keuchel does, but fly balls are less likely to leave the yard at Kauffman, so the point is mostly moot.
The other side of the argument
Having said those things, there are reasonable arguments to be made for Keuchel to start. The Astros are just beginning their journey, but they traded some of their prospects away to get Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers, and Scott Kazmir. Quite clearly, the Astros highly value winning in the playoffs right now. Keuchel is their best pitcher, and he's likely to give the Astros the best chance to win in an elimination game.
Keuchel's workload has been high, but it may not have affected him much. In theory, a fatigued pitcher will lose his mechanics over the course of a game. This should lead to decreased velocity and erratic command. Velocity is easy to measure, and a release point scatterplot can serve as an OK proxy for command. Below are two Brooks Baseball charts from Keuchel's Thursday start - one of velocity, one of release points.
Doesn't look to me like Keuchel's pitch count bothered him much.
As far as my final point, that McHugh is pretty good too, well...yes, that's true, but Keuchel is better. In addition, Keuchel does not have to throw a ton of innings. He can go out there for two innings, three innings, four innings, whatever. He does not have to go out there for seven strong innings, not in a do-or-die situation such as game five.
In the end, I'm sure Keuchel will be available regardless of whether or not he starts; this is an elimination game, and the Astros will not lose the game without throwing their best on the field against the Royals. My opinion is that the Astros shouldn't sacrifice Keuchel's arm in the pursuit of this win, but I'm a blogger writing for a macro-site whose team loyalty resides on the other side. I do not know the health status of Keuchel's left arm. I am not trying to win a championship, nor am I trying to please a starved fanbase.
If you asked Keuchel, he would probably say he's good to go. As a Royals fan, I remember Gil Meche.
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Kevin Ruprecht is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royals Review. He promises he did not want to be a homer in this article. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.