The Twins kicked off their early September homestand last Friday evening against the flailing New York Mets with a 5-2 win that started with five solid innings from veteran left-hander Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel, signed to a minor league contract mid-season and added to the major league roster in August, has now delivered the Twins 26.1 mostly useful innings (4.78 ERA, 4.32 FIP) over six appearances (five starts). More importantly, the Twins are 5-1 in games Keuchel has pitched in, which has allowed them to let Keuchel spell Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober down the stretch.
All of this has happened despite Keuchel only throwing two pitches clocked even as high as 89 mph. Of course, operating with below-average velocity isn’t new for Keuchel. He won a Cy Young in Houston in 2015 with an average sinker velocity of just 90 mph.
In a baseball era where velocity increasingly became king, Keuchel zigged and zagged his way through opposing lineups with well-located sinkers, cutters, sliders, and changeups.
From 2012 through the shortened 2020 season, Keuchel produced a combined 3.59 ERA and 3.77 FIP, both roughly ten percent better than the league averages, over more than 1,300 innings.
He wasn’t quite a front-of-the-rotation ace, but a remarkably consistent high #2 starter, despite never once averaging even a strikeout per inning in a season. Among qualified starting pitchers over that span, he ranked tied for 26th in fWAR (20.6), 34th in ERA, 53rd in FIP, and 27th in Win Probability Added (WPA).
He compensated for the lack of bat-missing stuff with one of the league’s best ground-ball rates (58.7%), keeping the ball in the park (0.86 HR allowed per nine innings), and limiting his free passes allowed (7.0% walk rate).
In the two full seasons since he posted a 1.99 ERA in 2020, Keuchel provided another 222.2 innings, but with starkly different results. He has pitched to a 6.35 ERA (151 ERA-) and 5.31 FIP (122 FIP-) for three different teams. Keuchel’s ERA was the worst in the league and his FIP was 2nd-worst among 114 pitchers to throw at least 200 innings in that stretch. He generated fewer ground balls (53.5%), walked more hitters (8.8%), and gave up more home runs (1.46 HR/9) and more or less appeared cooked as he approached his mid-30s.
Given that recent history, not much was expected when Keuchel signed with the Twins earlier this season and everyone is well within reason to be skeptical that he’s got much left to offer. That said, he has made some important adjustments to return to this passable level of performance and it’s worth understanding them and how sustainable they might be.
Sinking to the Edge
Keuchel had always pitched with above-average movement, especially vertical, on the sinker and changeup that he’d throw about two-thirds of the time.
Keuchel’s movement profiles were never the kind of physics-defying whiffle ball breaks that other pitchers might use to overwhelm hitters. Instead, he consistently worked with 10 to 20% more vertical break than the league average with those two pitches, as you can see below. Interestingly, that remained intact in 2021 and 2022 during his struggles.
Keuchel’s trick was where he located that heavy stuff. He was one of the best in baseball at locating his pitches around the edges of the strike zone where batters could make contact, but not high-quality contact.
Among the 383 pitchers to throw at least 5,000 pitches from 2012-2020, Keuchel ranked 29th in the percentage of pitches thrown in the shadow zone at 44.5%.
He ranked 13th, with 38.9%, on that same list for the percentage of pitches thrown in the bottom parts of the shadow zone (zones 14, 16, 17, 18, and 19 in the graphic above) where his sinkers and changeups were most likely to yield weak ground balls.
For years, Keuchel successfully lived on this precarious edge of ball and strike. Unlike some other sinkerballers, he didn’t just pound the strike zone with premium movement. He routinely ran one of the lowest rates of pitches thrown in the strike zone. His aggregate 43.1% rate of pitches thrown in the strike zone from 2012 through 2020 ranked 376th out of 383. He played cat and mouse, challenging hitters to be discerning and patient, while tempting them to put his edge pitches in play and (usually) get themselves out.
Falling Off the Edge
The unraveling of the past two seasons took place in part because Keuchel’s ability to walk that fine line seemingly eroded.
Keuchel’s zone rate in 2021 and 2022 was even lower, just 41.3%, which ranked 480th out of 484 pitchers who threw at least 1,000 pitches in that span. His cornerstone shadow rate also fell, to 43.4% (ranked 144th), and more of his pitches ended up too far away from or below the edge of the strike zone for batters to go after.
Whereas 14.1% of his pitches from 2012-2020 missed in zones 27, 28, and 29 down below the shadow zone; 17.3% of them did the past two seasons, as you can see in the comparison below:
One result of that imprecision was that Keuchel was behind in counts significantly more often. Where the hitter had the count advantage 27.4% of the time against Keuchel from 2012-2020, they’ve been ahead in the count 31.2% of the time the past two seasons.
That’s a bad recipe for a pitcher who doesn’t possess the kind of stuff to be successful going right after hitters in the strike zone. As Keuchel struggled to dial in his locations, hitters teed off when he came into the zone to a .347/.348/.603 (.401 wOBA) slash line the past two seasons. That level of production was 64 points of wOBA more than they’d produced against him in the zone from 2012 to 2020.
The whole thing with pitchers who rely on getting outs through soft contact is getting batters to hit the ball in sub-optimal ways. The most productive batted balls for hitters are hit between 8 and 32 degrees and greater than 95 mph, which Statcast calls the Sweet Spot and Hard Hit, respectively.
When Keuchel was at his best, he kept opponents from hitting balls in play within those categories. The past two seasons, uhh… not so much:
He went to Driveline
Keuchel did what pitchers nowadays do when they need help getting back on track. He went to Driveline. There, the things he needed to work on were clearly identified: regaining as much lost velocity as he could, revamping his biomechanical movements to regain the precision of his command, and making some arsenal tweaks that would enable him to steal strikes in the zone when he needed to.
1/3 ⚾️Dallas Keuchel made his season debut Sunday after nearly a YEAR away from a big league mound.— Chris Langin (@LanginTots13) August 8, 2023
Here's what the kid (@kidkeuchy) cooked up: @DrivelineBB Stuff+ at a spicy 78 (10 points better than what he averaged in 2022)
Sinker Velo Average ~0.6 ticks (87.2 to 87.8) pic.twitter.com/xIwGxpKD0X
While Keuchel’s velocity has not bounced up significantly, he is back to painting the edges of the zone. His 46.9% shadow zone rate for the Twins this season is the highest of his career (at least in the Statcast era) and the 15th-highest in MLB among pitchers to have thrown 400 pitches this season, Keuchel has the league’s highest rate of pitches (44.5%) thrown in the bottom parts of the shadow zone and the share of his pitches that miss down below in zones 27, 28, and 29 is down to 15.6%.
As a result of the sharper command, Keuchel is also back to working ahead. He’s thrown 64.3% first-pitch strikes, the highest rate of his career, and opposing hitters have had the ball-strike count advantage against him on 28.1% of the pitches he’s thrown.
An important factor in that is a renewed emphasis on his cutter, which he’s thrown for more than a quarter of his pitches so far this season. More cutters, and also a new willingness to throw them to his arm side (i.e., backdoor to righties), have given him a new strike-stealing option.
You can see in the heat map comparison above that Keuchel has rarely if ever, targeted his arm side with his cutter before this season. This season, he’s done that with about 30% of his cutters, particularly against right-handed batters. That’s helped Keuchel run the highest called strike rate of his career, 20%, up from his previous 17.7% career mark.
These adjustments have contributed to better success in the strike zone, as opponents have hit .299/.299/.448 (.318 wOBA) against Keuchel’s in-zone pitches. More importantly, Keuchel has reduced his overall sweet spot rate to 34.1%, and his hard hit rate is down to 30.7%, which are both relatively more in line with his prior work than that of the past couple of seasons. It’s a small sample, but his 85.9 mph average exit velocity allowed would be his lowest mark since his Cy Young 2015 season.
Does this mean that Keuchel is again the #2 pitcher he was with the Astros in the middle part of the last decade?
Not likely. Father time remains undefeated, after all.
To that point, Keuchel is missing fewer bats than ever before. His 18.0% whiff rate and 12.5% strikeout rate would both be career lows. His 8.0% walk rate is still a touch elevated from when he was at his best, he’s likely been fortunate in allowing only two home runs (xFIP = 4.54), and his ground ball generation (51.1%), while still very good, is reduced meaningfully from his peak. He’s allowing a .315 wOBA against his pitches in the shadow zone, which is up about 40 points from his pre-2020 levels.
All that said, there’s enough to like about what he’s doing that he doesn’t appear to be living on borrowed time gifted from the BABIP-gods (.302 BABIP this season vs. .298 career). This is not the same Dallas Keuchel of 2021 and 2022. He’s doing many of the things he has to do better than he has in a while.
It might be smoke and mirrors. But it’s a derivative version of the smoke and mirrors that he relied upon successfully for a long time. As long as he keeps pitching to his strengths and executing with the limited stuff he has (72 Stuff+) like this, and the Twins are smart with the positions they put him in, Keuchel can keep giving himself and the Twins a chance.