As the average major league fastball velocity continues to increase, there comes a greater appreciation for the disappearing art of inherently changing speeds.
This is in due part because the heavens have sent such titans as Noah Syndergaard, Carlos Martinez and Stephen Strasburg, who possess the raw fastball impetus to overshadow those lacking the Midas touch. We mere mortals naturally gravitate to those whose feats of strength rise above the concept of normal. Though no “normal” person has ever been gifted enough to forever be called a major league baseball player, the average Joes on the mound are more likely to be dismissed, to no fault of their own.
One such man being Dallas Keuchel.
Despite his crowning as the American League Cy Young winner a season ago, Keuchel seems to have become a forgotten entity. His 62 starts from 2014-15 saw the lefty notch 432.0 innings with the pace of a 2.70 ERA, 3.06 FIP, 5.2 percent walks and total 9.9 fWAR. Keuchel reestablished the notion that fastball command down in the zone, the unleashing of a crafty arsenal and the illusionary strike can still work where the explosive heater is absent.
In Part III of Keuchel’s heroic rise, however, we’ve seen the AL’s reigning pitching king fall from grace. He’s walking more batters, seen a greater number of fly balls become home runs, while his ground ball rate has strangled. At the beginning of the year, Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron noticed Keuchel’s withstanding below-average velocity beginning to valley, creating a domino effect that burdened his already dire need for deception, command and movement. Being the super smart person that Cameron is, he was on to something.
Cameron observed the similarities between pre-2014 Keuchel and his future April self, noting the correlation between his slowing velocity with his ability to force hitters out of the zone. Keuchel, lacking the kind of fastball that can be excused over the plate, relies on just enough sink and cut to avoid the barrel of the bat in order to limit playable damage. From April to June, Keuchel’s average fastball (88.86 MPH) and sinker (89.01 MPH) velocity both dropped below his overall 2015 averages, partners to his 5.11 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 1.14 HR/9 and 30.9 % hard-hit rate.
Maybe Keuchel’s southpawing pitching arm took a little bit longer than expected to gas up to full, but it looks like he’s packed his Slim Jims on the road to redemption.
It would appear that he’s gone full-Keuchel, and in this case, it’s always OK to go full-Keuchel.
Slowly and definitely, his fastball and sinker velocity have steadily jumped, as well as the rest of his arsenal. This progressive rise in velocity can help to answer why his July 2.33 ERA/3.00 FIP/.255 BABIP are season lows, but quite simply, Kid Keuchy’s benefited from the side-to-side and downward boost that comes as a byproduct of increasing speed.
Along with the fastball and sinker has been the rebranding of his cutter, which has seen more than a two-MPH increase since April, as well as nearly double the utilization in July. Perhaps more confident in his fastball, sinker and cutter, Keuchel has found a way to dominate his glove side of the plate with the semi-hard stuff.
According to Cameron, Keuchel led the league a season ago in balls out of the zone being called strikes, and in July, he’s been quite the charmer in swooning home plate umpires. His strike zone has expanded down and in toward the right-handed box, and he hasn’t been shy in taking advantage of a growing radius.
Through the first three months of 2016, Keuchel pressed solely on his sinker when working in hitter’s counts, but as the velocity has increased, he’s been more willing to utilize the cutter against right-handers. A jump from 17 percent usage to 34 percent in such situations has not only reintroduced an equalizer to right handers, but it’s also limited the power output that had become so irregular early in the year.
With Keuchel, his changeup isn’t necessarily a pitch that works better with decreased velocity, rather depending more on the grip to finish with prototypical fading action away from righties. Now with the cutter back in form, and a sinker lurking towards its usual self, the sequencing options become more much unidentifiable to both lefties and righties. That’s how an arm like Keuchel dominates, and that’s how he’s become such an advanced deterrent of hard contact.
It’ll very interesting to see whether Keuchel sustains his inching gains in oomph, and whether that continues to correlate in his favor, but Keuchel is riding a 2.33 ERA/3.00 FIP/.255 BABIP stretch, and if you couldn’t tell, I’m a sucker for the average dude.
Especially average dudes with beards.