HOUSTON -- It has been well-documented how the shoulder discomfort that plagued Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel last season contributed to a deterioration of his mechanics and, as a result, led to him struggling to place the ball where he wanted.
Coming off a season in which he won the American League Cy Young Award by going 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA -- and throwing a career-high 244 innings, including the playoffs -- Keuchel battled command issues throughout last season until he was finally shut down in August with shoulder inflammation.
A rested and healthy Keuchel is off to a quick start this year and has appeared to regain his 2015 form. He's 5-0 with a 1.88 ERA in seven starts, with 32 hits and 13 walks allowed and 41 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings. Keuchel was named American League Pitcher of the Month for April.
Here's a closer look at how Keuchel's first seven starts compare to the previous two seasons through Statcast™:
By comparing Keuchel's heat maps from the 2017 season, and the 2015 season, they're almost identical, showing the lefty's pinpoint control down in the zone.
The heat map from his 2016 season, however, shows that Keuchel threw the ball over the middle of the plate with much greater frequency, which was a result of his mechanics not being repeatable.
"It's always about repetition," Keuchel said. "Competing, to me, is smart competing, and that's trying to complete every pitch off the last one. The more quality pitches you can throw in the course of the game, the better off you're going to be. It doesn't matter if you throw 95, 98 or 82, if you can command the ball and repeat your mechanics and figure out a way to get outs and keep the other team off-balance, that's smart competing, and I'm doing that."
What's more, Keuchel has induced the most ground balls of any pitcher this season (83) and has an average exit velocity of 83.1 mph on grounders this season, which is the lowest he has had in three years. His overall average exit velocity against of 84.5 mph is the lowest he has had in three years. The league average is 87 mph, which means the combination of weak contact and good location has been the key.
"It's funny that last year when I didn't feel my best, everybody was, 'Well, the velocity is down, and that's probably why he's getting hit around,'" Keuchel said. "If you really look at the numbers, I was throwing a bunch of [stuff] down the middle, and I don't care if you're Chris Sale or Nolan Ryan, if you're consistently throwing it down the middle, you're going to get hit.
"That's what I did when I was good. I didn't throw it down the middle, and when I was bad, I threw a lot of pitches down the middle."
Keuchel admitted in the spring he probably shouldn't have tried to pitch through his injury last year, that he should have said something to the team earlier, but the competitor in him took over. Now that he's healthy, the competitor is dominating once again.
"That's another drawback of being competitive, when I'm not completely healthy or I'm not my best, I'm still going to go out there and think I'm better than the lineup I'm facing," he said. "It's tough sometimes, because sometimes you need to calm down a bit and channel back what I usually am, and that did play a part last year."
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.