Watching Dallas Keuchel pitch is something to behold. While I’ve always been a fan of sinkerballers — they can take the sting out of such great hitters’ bats, even when they know what’s coming — Keuchel is on another level with it. Time and again it seemed like he just barely nicks the edge of the strike zone, leaving batters bereft of any chance to even swing. I thought I was seeing things, but it turns out Keuchel is effectively the best starter at working the edges of the zone.
I base this on some scrounging around Baseball Savant’s search function using its Detailed Zone selection. It allows you to select discrete parts of the strike zone based on this image:
I used the search function to select everything on the very edge of the strike zone. So with Keuchel, I came up with this picture:
This isn’t very instructive. Neat, but it’s just some bright colors. If you just select those zones, any pitcher will look that way. But among pitchers who have thrown at least 1000 pitches in 2017, Keuchel is second in hitting that combined region 43.16 percent of the time. He trails only side-winding reliever Darren O’Day’s 44.46, and Keuchel threw more than 1000 more pitches than O’Day did. He lives on the edges, and it works.
Keuchel is not a strikeout artist. This year in the regular season, he held a 21.1 percent strikeout rate, not once cracking double-digit K’s. It’s been more than two years now since he’s struck out at least ten. But that doesn’t matter.
Keuchel does two things well. First, he gets grounders — tops in the majors with a 68.8 percent ground ball rate. It’s absurd, and it’s what he’s known for. He also happens to have the lowest Hard-Hit Rate in baseball, at 25.4 percent of batted balls, and the highest Soft-Hit rate, at 24.7 percent, according to FanGraphs. In more Statcast-y terms, his 84.5 MPH average exit velocity is fifth-lowest among pitchers who threw at least 2000 pitches, a decent cutoff for starters. Working the edge of the zone as he does, with the movement his sinker/two seamer in particular has, leads to a whole lot of soft-hit balls. Check it out:
That one bright red dot on the bottom was Eric Hosmer, simultaneously one of the harder hitters on grounders, 15th in baseball, and at 55.6 percent of the heaviest ground ball hitters in the game this year. Fourth, in fact. It was also a groundout to Carlos Correa. So it worked. The other red dot is a line drive out from Gary Sanchez.
Keuchel also gets a whole ton of soft grounders in general. These are just the grounders he induced through edge pitches:
It’s damn near a mirror image. It’s amazing he’s able to be this refined. It’s amazing the grounder rates he gets. The man heaves bowling balls.
So what happened Sunday night then, that saw him get seemingly hammered? He did get a little unlucky — the last hit he gave up to Charlie Culberson was a good result for Keuchel, just a few feet too far to the right for Jose Altuve to snag — but more than anything he just wasn’t that refined. His pitches were all over the place:
He wasn’t in the middle overly much; he just didn’t find the bottom edge. The sinker was not snapping to the corners and the floor of the zone as it normally does. But even on some good pitches, he got hit pretty hard:
He gave up 11 batted balls according to that chart (they could do to mess with the colors a bit, make it more readable against a white background), five of which left the bat at more than 99 mph. He did what he usually does, though, getting a ton of ground balls. Five of his six batted ball outs were grounders, and another two hits — the Taylor one to open the game and the Culberson dribbler — were on the ground. They just didn’t go the right way. They were still well-placed.
When he’s on, Keuchel makes the zone a good six or eight inches wider, and probably a good two or three lower, too. Look at where he’s made guys chase for foul balls, along with swinging strikes:
Keuchel might not be the best pitcher in the world, at least by modern standards. He just relies on his fielders so much. But he’s certainly the best pitcher for the Astros. They play in a band box, and he is able to keep the sting out of the bat and let his stupendous infield do the work. The way he throws doesn’t rely on pure stuff. He’s just a machine of edge-smashing perfection. Opposing hitters should get used to it, for a long time.