By this point, Dallas Keuchel was supposed to be on the verge of getting booted out of the Houston Astros’ rotation. A junk-ball lefty who rarely cracks ninety on the radar gun, Keuchel walked more hitters than he struck out two years ago and had the third-worst ERA (5.20) of any major league starter throwing at least 200 innings from 2012-13. The 221st pick in the ’09 draft seemed like little more than a rotation-filler, a guy who would munch innings in front of sparse crowds until Houston’s crop of power pitchers was ready to take over.
The likes of Mark Appel, Lance McCullers, Mike Foltynewicz and Vincent Velasquez are still barreling toward Minute Maid Park, but Keuchel’s not going anywhere. The 26-year-old has morphed into a Cliff Lee clone in 2014, compiling a 5.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio that nearly triples his career average entering the season (1.8) and ranks ninth among all qualified starting pitchers. Keuchel has also become the game’s pre-eminent worm-burner, inducing grounders on 66.5% of balls put in play. Dating back to 2002, only Felix Hernandez (67.1% in 2005) and Derek Lowe (66.9% in 2006 and 66.8% in ’02) have posted higher ground ball rates during a season in which they threw 70-plus innings.
Keuchel is proving to be far more than a Quad-A footnote during the Astros’ rebuilding process thanks to one of the game’s nastiest sliders. He didn’t even throw the pitch when he first arrived in the majors in 2012, instead relying upon a loopy, low-70’s curveball that opponents slugged over .400 against. But Keuchel has since shelved his curveball, developing a high-70s-to-low-80s breaker that hitters just can’t resist.
No major league starter has tossed fewer sliders in the strike zone than Keuchel (minimum 150 pitches thrown). Just 22.5% of his breaking stuff has hovered over the plate — about half the MLB average clip (45.1%). But he’s not just bouncing sliders in the dirt and expecting hitters to pull the trigger. Rather, Keuchel is spotting his slider far enough off the plate that hitters can’t inflict much damage, but close enough that they still feel compelled to swing.
Keuchel’s teasing hitters with his out-pitch. Opposing batters think they can hit the lefty’s low-and-off-the-plate sliders — they’re chasing them far more often (40.3%) than the MLB average (32.8%) — but they’re doing little more than generating a cool breeze for front-row fans. Keuchel is generating swings and misses 52.5% of the time with his slider this season. The only pitcher getting more whiffs with that pitch? Max Scherzer (53.1%), who’s aiming for a $200 million-plus free agent mega-deal this winter. Not bad for guy who looked destined for Triple-A Oklahoma City or the waiver wire a few months ago.