The Houston Astros, who are equal parts surprising and surging as April comes to a close, won yet again Wednesday afternoon, defeating the San Diego Padres behind starter Dallas Keuchel, who has put together a Cy Young-caliber first month of the season.
The 7-2 road win was the Astros' sixth consecutive victory and ninth in their past 10 games—including eight of nine on their now-completed road trip—bringing their record to a who'd-have-thunk-it 14-7. Houston leads the AL West handily, as none of the other four clubs is even at .500.
The 27-year-old left-hander has been at the very heart of the Astros' climb from laughingstock franchise coming off six straight losing seasons to upstart squad that looks like it will be a lot better than anyone expected—and way sooner than anyone could have imagined.
Consider this: After allowing just one run over eight innings against the much-improved and righty-heavy Padres lineup that entered Wednesday leading the NL in runs scored and had the highest OPS against lefty pitchers in the league (.896), Keuchel's ERA actually rose. Barely.
He entered the outing with a 0.62 mark, and because he permitted a run in a start for just the second time all season, his ERA now sits at 0.73, second best in MLB.
That makes 12 quality starts in a row for Keuchel, who is the sport's co-leader with 37 innings pitched along with Johnny Cueto of the Cincinnati Reds, dating back to last August. Going back a little further, he's managed that in 15 of 16 turns.
And yet, Keuchel somehow still is not only under the radar but dang near off the thing, something of a no-name, even after his 2014 breakout in which he posted a 2.93 ERA over 200 innings.
If nothing else, Keuchel's start to 2015 is proving that last year was no fluke. And the surprising Astros, who have yet to get untracked on offense, are benefiting big-time. In fact, while Houston has scored a robust 4.76 runs per game to date, the club also is hitting just .240 as a team (18th best) and has struck out a league-high 202 times.
What's more, three of the Astros' biggest bats—George Springer (.198 BA), Evan Gattis (.174) and Chris Carter (.169)—are hitting below the Mendoza Line.
That's bound to turn around, but until it does, Keuchel has been able to help Houston not only survive but thrive. What's even more refreshing is that at a time when baseball is being dominated by increasing strikeout rates and pitchers who throw regularly in the mid-90s, Keuchel gets it done with a fastball that registers an average velocity of 89.0 mph, per PITCHf/x (via FanGraphs).
His secret? Pitching efficiently.
While he has struck out only 5.6 per nine—or nearly two full strikeouts below the league-wide 7.4 K/9 rate—Keuchel has found success with good command and great control (2.2 BB/9 since the start of 2014) and by inducing weak contact early and often with his two-seamer and changeup.
Since the beginning of last year, Keuchel has induced a best-in-baseball 39 ground-ball double plays. Here's one example, from his April 12 start against the Texas Rangers in which he escaped a one-out, bases-loaded jam by getting a GIDP in the fourth on his way to seven innings of six-hit, two-run ball:
All that ground-balling also comes in handy (literally) because Keuchel, who won a Gold Glove last year, can field his position with the best of 'em, too. Witness:
It's fitting, really: Dallas Keuchel, an overlooked pitcher who has found success by doing things a different way has been the driving force behind a Houston Astros team that has been overlooked due to years of futility.
But given the hot coinciding starts of Keuchel and the Astros, it's getting harder and harder to overlook them.