After years below .500, Houston ace and Co. enjoy the view from the top
By Richard Justice
HOUSTON -- When Dallas Keuchel discusses his emergence as one of baseball's best pitchers, there are times when he simply stops and tries to put the whole crazy ride into context.
"This season is the most fun I've ever had on a baseball field," Keuchel said.
There you go. Pretty simple, right? That's because Keuchel was here when the Astros were lousy, when they were methodically building for a better day. He couldn't focus on the big picture because he was attempting to get his own career off the ground.
Still, there were times Keuchel had to wonder. He was playing for a team buried in the standings and playing in front of a nearly empty ballpark. To think it could all turn around so fast is almost beyond his comprehension.
"That's because I've seen the worst," Keuchel said. "I've been through a couple of 100-loss seasons. I've been through tryouts with guys coming in and out, a revolving door of a roster. It's very rewarding. For us to be in first place right now, I don't even think we've played that well. I think we have more room to grow, and I think we're a better team than what we've shown so far. And we're 10 games over .500."
After averaging 104 losses the past four seasons, Houston has been alone atop the American League West for 76 days and have a 45-34 record and a four-game lead.
The Astros are doing it with youth and energy, plus a general manager, Jeff Luhnow, who has made shrewd acquisitions and a manager, A.J. Hinch, who has made it all work. No team is having more fun than this one.
And there's Keuchel, the 27-year-old left-hander. He will make his 17th start of the season on Tuesday night against the Kansas City Royals. Since the start of the 2014 season, Keuchel's 2.65 ERA is behind only Felix Hernandez (2.41), Jon Lester (2.46) and Chris Sale (2.47) among AL starters.
This season, Keuchel is 9-3, and the Astros are 11-5 in his 16 starts. He leads the AL in innings pitched and is second in ERA (2.17) and WHIP (0.96). Keuchel is tied for second in victories. In 16 starts, he has pitched at least seven innings 10 times and allowed two runs or fewer 11 times.
This is pitching as artistry -- that is, pinpoint control and the ability to change speeds. Keuchel is a reminder that movement and location are every bit as important as velocity.
"I've had hitters on the other side tell me that every pitch looks the same coming out of his hand," Hinch said. "He doesn't tip anything. And every pitch has movement that's late."
Hinch, a former big league catcher, pays Keuchel the ultimate compliment when he says, "As a catcher, I would love catching him, because I can call any pitch in any count, and he's going to execute it. They're probably going to hit it softly. He generates some of the softest contact in baseball."
According to Statcast™, the average exit velocity against Keuchel is 85.4 mph, which is the fifth lowest among MLB starters. That may explain why his opponents' batting average on balls in play is .233, the lowest in the AL.
Because Keuchel has never been blessed with a blazing fastball -- his is ranked 42th in the AL at 89.6 mph by FanGraphs.com -- he was harder to project as a Major League starter. Even the scouts who appreciated his smarts, aptitude and work ethic at the University of Arkansas just weren't sure he would make it. So Houston made Keuchel the 221st player taken in the 2009 Draft.
What those scouting reports could not unearth was Keuchel's tenacity, drive and self-confidence. He had a burning desire to be the best he could be -- and he also had a gift. Even in high school, Keuchel could move the baseball up and down, in and out.
"As a pitcher, your job is to disrupt timing," Hinch said. "Dallas can do it with movement or velocity."
Makeup? Hinch is glad you asked.
"Competitive," Hinch said. "I could say competitive six times. He's also stubborn, in a good way. He's in attack mode. He doesn't back down from challenges. He doesn't let the moment beat him. He's just a very, very prepared competitive pitcher."
Keuchel has two above-average pitches -- fastball and slider -- but also throws a cutter and a changeup. During long at-bats, he'll sometimes throw a batting-practice fastball up in the strike zone to give hitters a different look.
"Some sinkerball pitchers will say, 'Oh no, I'm not throwing up there,'" catcher Hank Conger said. "He's just a guy who knows how to pitch."
Because the Astros use so many defensive shifts, Luhnow and his staff have been able to help Keuchel maximize his ability to get ground balls.
"The lateness in his movement is very noteworthy," Hinch said. "His ball has a lot of finish. That's his slider, sinker, all late finish. A lot of his movement is at the hitting zone, which is very hard to do. You can't teach that. It's not something you can easily create. He has it. It's part of his grip, part of his delivery."
Along the way, Keuchel's confidence has grown day by day. If he ever wondered if he belonged, these past two seasons should have erased every last bit of doubt.
"It's a constant evolution," Keuchel said. "That was my main thing, to make every pitch look like a strike out of my hand and then either fade off or disappear. To have the ability to throw the baseball where you want and not miss by more than half a baseball is special. I can watch [Greg] Maddux, [Tom] Glavine, [John] Smoltz all day. It's the most underrated talent as a pitcher."
As Keuchel churns out quality start after quality start, his underrated and unnoticed days are over. His distinctive beard doesn't hurt. Mostly, though, Keuchel is just good at what he does.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.