I play in a lot of fantasy baseball leagues. Five to be exact. And I'm kicking myself big time for not owning Dallas Keuchel in any of them. All the signs were there that his 2016 should have been written off. I liked him to bounce back this year, due to off-season reports that a nagging shoulder injury suffered last spring was to blame for his poor follow up season to a Cy Young winning 2015. But I don't think anyone expected him to be this good again this quickly. Through his first five starts Keuchel has registered 1.8 WAR (baseball-reference) while going 4-0 with a 1.22 ERA. He's been the main reason Houston is currently 14-7 with the best record in the AL West.
So how does Keuchel do it? Well there's this movement going on in baseball right now where nearly every hitter is trying to hit more fly balls (this is done by improving their launch angle, but that's a blog post for another day). Why fly balls? Because fly balls leave the ballpark and grounders don't. So how does "Kid Keuchy" combat this? Well he absolutely pounds the bottom of the strike zone with sinkers and two seamers. If the batter swings, they likely aren't able to elevate the ball and it will result in a ground out, which has led to his MLB leading 65.6% ground ball rate.
Okay so it seems like the book is out on him then. Batters just shouldn't swing at pitches down low, right? Right, but also wrong. In theory guys should be laying off these sinkers and waiting for something up in the zone that they can drive. The problem with that is Keuchel's command is so good that he doesn't miss the bottom third of the strike zone. A perfect example of this was during his complete game against the Indians this past Tuesday night. According to Statcast Keuchel threw 30 called strikes, which is the most in the majors this year. To summarize, batters can't swing at pitches low in the zone because they'll ground out. But they have to swing because when they don't the pitch is going to get called as a strike. Hence why the Stros' ace has been so good this year.
Keuchels' great start to 2017 has quieted trade talks surrounding the Astros and White Sox for Jose Quintana. Over the past two seasons Houston has gone as Keuchel has gone. Remember, in 2015 they made the playoffs built around an incredible group of position players plus Keuchel's Cy Young season. In 2016 those position players were still great but Keuchel was hurt and the team missed the playoffs. Now that he's back to being an ace Houston looks as good as any team in the American League. The Astros have a real chance to win the World Series this year, so had Keuchel struggled out of the gate I really believe they would have traded for Quintana. Luckily for Houston fans their ace is pitching far better than any starter currently on the trade market.