The White Sox have had everything go right in 2020. At 26-15, they’re tied for first in the American League Central and for the third-best record in baseball overall. They’ve had guys mash up and down their lineup, with Tim Anderson, José Abreu and Luis Robert leading the charge. On the pitching side, they’ve been excellent as well, with their starting staff — expected to be a weakness into this season — ranking eighth in fWAR.
Chicago’s rotation has been led by yet another great season from Lucas Giolito, but right there with him has been offseason addition Dallas Keuchel, who has also been pitching brilliantly in 2020. Keuchel joined the staff on a three-year, $55.5 million contract this past offseason, and so far, he’s been worth every penny.
In nine starts, Keuchel has pitched to a 2.19 ERA, 3.11 FIP and 3.80 xFIP over 53 1⁄3 innings. He’s been worth 1.5 fWAR, good for 12th among qualified pitchers. And though he left his most recent start due to back stiffness, he is currently considered day-to-day and was not placed on the Injured List.
Keuchel is having this success without dominating in the traditional fashion. He has struck out just 14.9 percent of hitters, the second-lowest rate among qualified starters. His walk rate, meanwhile, is just 5.6 percent, the 10th-best rate. Keuchel is pitching almost exclusively to contact thus far, and he has yet to be burned: Hitters have posted just a .238 wOBA against him, the 11th-best mark among pitchers who’ve faced at least 100 batters.
None of this should sound too unfamiliar. Keuchel is a known groundball artist, and it just looks like he’s doing more of the same, considering his groundball rate is the fourth-highest among starting pitchers. But where Keuchel has slightly diverged from his former self is that he’s actually allowing more contact than normal:
Keuchel, plate appearances that end in batted balls
|Year||Batted Ball Events||Batters Faced||BBE%|
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That looks problematic, and it’s why Keuchel remains a candidate for regression. But even the advanced metrics — a 3.80 xFIP, a 4.37 SIERA and a 3.87 DRA — don’t necessarily hate him. For a guy who allows as much contact as Keuchel, you’d think that the wheels could fall off at any time. But he’s so good at what he does. And this season, he’s only been better with the help of two key factors: the Chicago defense and catcher framing.
First, the White Sox have played some great defense behind Keuchel. He’s allowing just a .249 BABIP, a number that is sure to regress somewhat, but perhaps by not as much as you’d expect. Chicago’s team defensive efficiency (1 - BABIP) has been pretty good this year, as they’ve turned 71.6 percent of batted balls into outs (excluding errors and sac flies), ranking 12th in the majors. On groundballs specifically, they’ve been a touch better, turning 78.3 percent of groundballs into outs, good for ninth. These are both huge upgrades from the 2019 Braves team Keuchel pitched in front of — that squad ranked 22nd and 27th in overall and groundball defensive efficiency, respectively.
The second — and possibly more important factor here — is the addition of Yasmani Grandal. While Keuchel was an important free agent add for the White Sox, the four-year, $73 contract handed out to Grandal was a much bigger deal, both figuratively and literally. The pairing of Keuchel and Grandal this season has been incredible to watch; when that battery is in order, Keuchel has pitched to a 1.52 ERA and opponents are slashing just .209/.263/.227.
None of that is going to be sustainable over a large sample, but for a guy who works around the edges, having Grandal behind the plate is a massive help. But that’s not the only way in which Keuchel has benefitted. Former college battery mate James McCann, too, has been a fantastic receiver. He’s ranked sixth in Statcast’s framing metric — he’s actually better than Grandal here — and 11th in the FanGraphs version. Overall, by FanGraphs’ metric, the White Sox have produced the second-most framing runs of any team this year.
And we can see how that’s helped Keuchel. Into games on Tuesday, Keuchel was tied for the second-most called strikes on pitches outside the zone, with 34. That’s an average of 3.8 extra strikes per start. This is what those have looked like visually:
If you wondered what happened on that super low pitch — right by (0, 1) on the graph — this is it:
Also of note is the fact that this is McCann, not Grandal, behind the plate.
With this top-notch receiving, Keuchel benefits in more ways than one. Not only is he getting extra strikes outside the zone, but he’s also doing what he’s done for years: getting hitters to swing (and make contact) on pitches outside the zone. Keuchel is right where you want to be, getting both strikes and swings on bad pitches:
Keuchel has gotten called strikes on 7.4 percent of his out-of-zone pitches and swings on 30.0 percent, above the league-averages of 5.2 and 27.0 percent, respectively. The latter figure is right in line with what Keuchel has always done, but he hasn’t gotten this many out-of-zone called strikes since 2015. Coincidentally or not, that was the year Keuchel claimed the AL Cy Young award.
For a pitcher who already has to work the edges, an expanded zone is a godsend. Extra strikes put hitters on the defensive. Nearly 30 percent of the batted balls Keuchel has allowed this season have been on non-strikes, the third-highest rate in baseball and his personal highest rate since 2017. (That year, he had a 2.90 ERA and a 3.79 FIP.) As you’d expect, the results are exactly what Keuchel wants — hitters have just a .293 xwOBA on non-strikes put into play against him. This is Dallas Keuchel being classic Dallas Keuchel.
It seems that practically everything has come together for the White Sox in 2020. Perhaps Keuchel just represents a microcosm of their whole season: They put all of the necessary parts in place, and the results have been excellent. While he’s certainly due for regression at some point, this version of Keuchel still looks pretty good under the hood. Chicago will take that as they continue their push for the postseason.
Devan Fink is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. Previous work of his can be found at FanGraphs and his own personal blog, Cover Those Bases. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.