“It’s amazing how many people start freaking out when you don’t have a couple of good starts.”
Those were the wise, frustrated words of Dallas Keuchel after he turned in his best start in four tries since coming off the disabled list Sunday. Prior to his 6.2 inning, one-run outing against Texas, in which he struck out seven Rangers, Keuchel resembled the 2016 version of himself instead of the 2015 Cy Young-winning version.
With Keuchel’s solid start Sunday, does it mean that he was just shaking the rust off from being on the shelf? Well, quite possibly, but there are reasons why Keuchel struggled in his first three games back from the disabled list after he missed a month and a half with an injured neck. The reason? Location.
See, Keuchel is the type of pitcher who doesn’t have overpowering stuff. Like Marco Estrada, he relies on being able to spot his pitches perfectly. That’s what we saw in 2015, when Keuchel won the Cy Young Award, as he was able to keep his pitches down in the zone consistently throughout the year. But when he misses, he gets in trouble.
Keuchel worked the middle, edge and lower parts of the zone, avoiding the top part of the zone almost completely throughout the season.
In 2016, though, when Keuchel had a down season, you’ll see that he still avoided the upper part of the zone for the most part (more pitches were in the upper part of the zone overall), but he left pitches over the middle more often and didn’t pound the location that made him so successful in 2015.
It was after the 2016 season that Keuchel admitted he was dealing with pain in his shoulder all year, and he was overcompensating for it. That explains a lot of what went wrong for him last year.
Being the reactionary industry that we are, we lowered Keuchel heading into drafts this year. In 2017, one year removed from a Cy Young Award, Keuchel was the 32nd pitcher off the board according to FantasyPro’s ADP. Before he hurt his neck this year, Keuchel looked like the Keuchel of 2015, with correction in ERA, WHIP, FIP, SIERA and SwStr%.
While Keuchel’s numbers are still like 2015 overall, he was on his way to surpassing them before the injury. We expected regression because the overall numbers just weren’t sustainable, but still, Keuchel was one of the top pitchers in baseball prior to his DL stint.
But then, he returned to the mound, and all hell broke loose, save his most recent start.
So, what happened? Well, Keuchel wasn’t hitting his spots again. He was fresh off the DL, so maybe he was trying to find his command after being on the shelf, but it’s also possible that he was overcompensating and pitching through an injury like he did last year.
During his first three starts back, Keuchel didn’t have his typical control or the command that’s made him successful. Compare his three post-DL starts to his pitching chart from the beginning of the season up until the time he got hurt.
See the difference?
Now, let’s see his chart from his most recent outing against the Rangers.
Keuchel is painting a picture similar to his 2015 season here, minus a few pitches that got away from him high. Remember, this last graph is a one-game sample, so the numbers will be magnified.
As a Fantasy owner, you should be cautiously optimistic after his last outing. Keuchel is too good to bench, but if he’s pitching through another injury and his outings look more like his first three off the DL, instead of his last one, he becomes a fringy option in standard leagues.
But, if Sunday was a sign of things to come, Kuechel can become more like the pitcher we saw in the first half of this season and in 2015 than the pitcher we saw over the past few weeks and in 2016.
For now, he needs to be treated like a Top 20 pitcher still. With the playoffs on the horizon, you’re kind of put in a tough spot. If your trade deadline hasn’t passed yet somehow, it’s worth trading him for a pitcher in the same tier if you’re able to for safety. If not, hang on tight, and hope Keuchel is over the injury and able to repeat his mechanics and release point to keep the ball down in the zone.