Dallas Keuchel's 2015 performance was simply amazing. Here are a few stats to show you just how dominant he was:
Without doing any research, many people would say that this was Keuchel's career year and it isn't repeatable. That's a pretty easy argument to make, and history alone would suggest some regression is likely for Keuchel in 2016. How many times have we seen a pitcher break out one year, but never again come close to that same level of production? Looking back at just the last 5 years, do any of these names sound familiar: R.A. Dickey, Anibal Sanchez, Gio Gonzalez, Ian Kennedy, Ubaldo Jimenez. All of these pitchers had one excellent year and finished top 5 in Cy Young voting (Dickey even won in 2012). All of them however were essentially one year wonders and have grossly failed to live up to expectations since their breakout.
At first glance I had similar thoughts about Keuchel. While he had a nice year in 2014, he didn't appear to have a pedigree or skill set to repeat this type of success for years to come, especially in the American League. Then I started to dig a bit deeper into some underlying sabermetrics and quickly changed my mind. Here are some stats I looked at that changed my mind:
Soft%, Med%, and Hard% (quality of contact): These stats refer to the quality of contact that batters are making when facing an opposing pitcher. These are relatively new metrics and Fangraphs has a very nice write-up here for those that would like to read more about them.
In 2015, Keuchel was the third best pitcher in Soft% for all qualifying pitchers. If you look back at 2014, he was fourth for pitchers that qualified. Even more amazingly, he posted the lowest Hard% in all of baseball for both 2014 and 2015. Now, many people ask me the same questions when I start talking about quality of contact: "What does this mean"?
This means that batters aren't making good contact against Keuchel. It means that he's doing an excellent job keeping batters off balance with both his change of speed, pitch selection and effectiveness of each pitch. If batters aren't able to square up on the ball, they are less likely to hit line drives/fly balls and have fewer opportunities to turn batted balls into hits and runs.
Simply put, over the last 2 seasons when batters are able to make contact against Keuchel, he has been the most effective pitcher in all of baseball in inducing weak contact. To better show what weak contact translates into, I started looking into another set of metrics:
GB%, FB%, and GB/FB: GB% refers to percentage of batted balls that are considered ground balls. Similarly, FB% has the same definition for fly balls. GB/FB divides these two numbers and is measured as a ratio to show how many ground balls are given up for each fly ball. Fangraphs does a fantastic job again providing a very detailed article on these stats which can be found here.
So after looking at the various quality of contact metrics, I wasn't too surprised with what I found as I looked into these metrics for Keuchel. In 2015, Keuchel was second in all of baseball in both GB% and GB/FB. In 2014 he led the league in both of these stats respectively. Like before, after talking about this set of metrics many people are again asking: "What does this mean?"
When you couple Keuchel's extremely high ground ball % with his weak quality of contact, you're left with a significant number of easy outs. His FB% is also very low and that has helped him to keep his HR's allowed at a minimum. This all translates into batted balls becoming outs more often than almost any pitcher in the game over the last 2 seasons.
So the next big question I get about Keuchel: "Is this sustainable going forward?" To answer this question, I considered a couple of things:
Keuchel has a 5 pitch arsenal: Sinker, Slider, Change, Cutter, 4-seam fastball. Looking at this arsenal, some people might be fooled. I say that because his 4-seam fastball tops out at a little over 90 mph. That doesn't generally equate to a dominant pitcher. Unlike most pitchers though, his 4-seam fastball is isn't a "go-to" pitch. Keuchel relies mostly on his sinker and slider which are his most effective pitches. The bottom drops out of his sinker while his slider covers a lot of area across the plate. He's very intelligent when he decides to sprinkle in his other pitches and this results in batters that don't know what’s coming. Even when they do, Keuchel does an excellent job of locating pitches, keeping the ball low in the zone and limiting mistakes. Put all of this together and you have one of the game's most effective sinker ball pitchers that can also have an above average K/9 ratio.
I also mentioned comparing Keuchel to other similar pitchers. I looked back over the last decade and two names stood out to me when I began digging into career statistics: Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. In their primes, both had excellent control and were consistent league leaders in inducing weak contact. They were able to sustain success not by overpowering everyone they faced, but by locating pitches well and keeping batters off balance. Neither of them ever posted elite K/9 ratios, but both were effective enough to compile a reasonable amount of strikeouts through the years. They were most effective by keeping batters off the bases and keeping the ball in the park. This is exactly who Keuchel is and what he does.
I'm not saying Keuchel is a lock to win back to back Cy Young awards. However, I think there is a very good likelihood that he maintains his current level of production and carries it into 2016 and potentially further. I am projecting him to be a top 10 SP in all of baseball for this year and I think his floor is extremely high. I would be happy to get him as the ace of my staff, and I expect to see his name on a lot of Championship rosters.