Dallas Keuchel's 2014 Breakout Has Made Him MLB's Top-Secret Ace

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 13, 2014

You can be forgiven if you can't rattle off all of Major League Baseball's ace pitchers from memory in this pitching-crazy age. If it's only the Clayton Kershaws, Felix Hernandezes, Adam Wainwrights and Yu Darvishes who spring to mind, that's OK.

But here's a name for your consideration: Dallas Keuchel.

He's a 26-year-old left-hander who plays for the Houston Astros. And if you don't know much (or anything) about him, that cements his status as MLB's top-secret ace.

Keuchel made his 13th start of 2014 Wednesday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Minute Maid Park, and it went quite well. He lasted eight innings, allowing one earned run on four hits with five strikeouts and one walk in a 5-1 Astros victory.

Ho hum. As Brian McTaggart of MLB.com noted, this was just the latest stop on Keuchel's recent roll:

Keuchel's ERA is down to 2.38. That ranks fifth in the American League, and it puts him just a tick ahead of the great King Felix.

How is Keuchel doing it?

Well, he's certainly not a prototypical ace pitcher. He was only a seventh-round pick in 2009, and at no point was he a top prospect. And with a heater that sits 90-91, he's no Randy Johnson.

This and the fact that Keuchel is coming off a 5.15 ERA across 31 appearances (22 starts) might make you suspicious. Surely, you might be thinking, Keuchel's breakout is bound to break down.

Oh, don't be so sure.

Let's start by considering three metrics: FIP, xFIP and SIERA. You can follow those links (and this one) to learn all there is to know about them, but their basic job is to calculate what a pitcher's ERA should be by stripping luck from the equation and focusing on his actual performance.

In other words, these metrics can tell us if Keuchel actually deserves his sub-3.00 ERA, so let's check it out (via FanGraphs):

Dallas Keuchel and the ERA Estimators
AL Rank754

As far as these metrics are concerned, Keuchel's ERA isn't much lower than it should be. He may have the look and feel of an overachiever, but statistically he's not an overachiever.

This comes down to what these metrics are looking for. They prefer pitchers who strike batters out, don't walk batters and keep batted balls on the ground. Basically, pitchers who leave little to chance.

It's no wonder they really like Keuchel, then:

Dallas Keuchel's Strikeouts, Walks and Ground Balls
AL SP Average7.382.9444.0

Relative to the average AL starter, Keuchel is just barely striking guys out at a higher rate. He is limiting walks at a much lower rate and picking up ground balls at an immensely higher rate.

In fact, going back to 2002, only Derek Lowe and Brandon Webb have ever finished with a ground-ball rate as high as 65 percent. To boot, neither was able to do so with either a BB/9 as low as 1.79 or a K/9 as high as 7.44, let alone both.

Keuchel isn't getting his results by accident. He's practicing what he preaches, as he recently had this to say to Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle (subscription required):

...Wins and ERA I think are kind of diminished now, and it's more groundout to air out. … Our team, we have a bunch of ground-ball guys.

Strikeouts per nine, walks per nine. Those are things that you control. They're not necessarily ground balls, but strikeouts and walks - if you consistently get ahead of guys and are attacking the zone, you've got a chance.

Meet Dallas Keuchel: Man Who Gets It.

And he doesn't just have the mindset for the job. He has the goods, too.

According to Brooks Baseball, Keuchel throws his sinker 39.1 percent of the time. That makes it his primary pitch, and it can definitely get ground balls.

This is what the top of the sinker GB/BIP (ground balls per balls in play) leaderboard at Baseball Prospectus looks like:

  1. Dallas Keuchel: 81 percent
  2. Justin Masterson: 71 percent

That's not a misprint. Over 80 percent of the balls in play off Keuchel's sinker are ground balls, and then there's a 10 percent gap between his sinker and the next most ground-ball-iest sinker.

The strikeouts, meanwhile, come mainly from Keuchel's slider. It's responsible for 46 of his 75 punchouts, and that's largely because it's extremely hard to make contact with it.

Among lefty starters, here's the top of the leaderboard when it comes to slider whiffs per swing:

  1. Clayton Kershaw: 57.9 percent
  2. Dallas Keuchel: 52.2 percent

Yup. The only lefty starter with a more unhittable slider is the greatest lefty starter with the greatest lefty slider of them all.

The secret ingredient of Keuchel's slider is an insane amount of tilt. If we look at the top of the leaderboard for slider horizontal movement, we see this:

  1. Dallas Keuchel: 5.23 inches
  2. Chris Sale: 3.82 inches

We know Chris Sale's slider is an optical illusion of destruction, and yet there's Keuchel's slider with more than an inch of movement on Sale's slider.

It's therefore unfair that Keuchel also has a changeup that right-handed batters are hitting just .208 against, and he further helps himself by rarely elevating his pitches. According to BaseballSavant.com, he's thrown just 20.5 percent of his pitches up in the zone and beyond.

Among those who have thrown at least 1,000 pitches, that percentage is the smallest.

There's no one way to become an ace. But as Keuchel can vouch, it's good to strike guys out, not walk guys and get a lot of ground balls. To those ends, it helps to have an excellent sinker/slider combination with a solid changeup and the command to put 'em where you want 'em.

It's worked for Keuchel, anyway. He already has the numbers, and there's not much that says those numbers shouldn't stop coming. All he really needs is attention worthy of an ace.

Slowly but surely, it's coming.

FanGraphs' Mike Petriello jumped on the Keuchel bandwagon in late May. Jon Tayler of SI.com joined on Wednesday. Here's me doing it on Thursday, and Richard Justice of MLB.com wrote what all those who've been watching Keuchel have been thinking:

"Keuchel is about as close to a slam dunk as the AL All-Stars will have this summer."

Until then, consider yourself in on the secret.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.


If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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