Game 49, Astros at Mariners
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Dallas Keuchel, 1:10pm
First off, sorry for the lack of a game thread yesterday. I took Jeff’s advice and did non-baseball activities all day with the family. Hope you’re all enjoying the holiday weekend as well. If so, yesterday’s game was one to miss, as Brandon Maurer had a forgettable start – and one that could be his last for a while. Following along on twitter was sort of interesting, as everyone was impressed with Maurer between the 2nd and 4th innings, and then everyone was convinced he needed to be sent down.
Today’s game’s a bit more interesting, as we’ve got a fascinating pitcher’s match-up. I’ve spent too much time mocking Keuchel’s name and not enough about his startling rise to prominence this year. Check out a list of the top FIPs in MLB, and Keuchel’s solidly in the top 20, ahead of some big names like Cueto, Samardzija, and Scherzer. His actual RA’s right in line with that FIP too, which is pretty stunning for a pitcher who’s had an ERA over 5 in each of the past two years.
Full credit to Eno Sarris at Fangraphs who ID’d Keuchel as a potential break out last year when he ditched an ineffective curveball for a slider that racked up solid whiff rates. I remember thinking at the time that his breaking ball was missing the point – Keuchel wasn’t great against lefties, he had huge problems against right-handed hitters. For a guy with platoon split problems, adding a slider seemed odd; like a batter who’s having trouble catching up to good velocity switching to a heavier bat. As it turned out, though, the pitch was a key part of a broader transformation.
When Keuchel came up with Houston, he threw two fastballs around 88, a change-up and a curve (and an occasional cutter). He threw the four- and two-seamers in equal proportion, and the four-seamer got pounded. The change-up got grounders, but righties hit it well if he hung one. Part of the issue may have been its velo – his change averaged 75 mph, or about the same as a slow curve ball. After watching Felix for years, I’m not doctrinaire about an 8mph gap between FB and CH velocities, but that gap seemed sub-optimal. Last season, he gained velocity on each pitch – his FB now averages a touch over 90. He still had a large gap between FB and CH, and the pitch was again hit fairly hard. Still, the big problem was his four-seamer. Pitch type slash lines can be tough to interpret, as Keuchel’s never going to throw an 0-2 or 1-2 four-seamer, but in 2013, batters slugged *.810* against the four-seamer. Caveat that all you want, that’s a problem.
This season, his slider’s incredibly effective against lefties, and he’s adopted a very different approach to his four-seam, which he throws more often to righties. Instead of trying to throw it low and away (or just off the plate away), he’s trying to tie up righties by putting it just under their hands. Meanwhile, the change-up’s now up at 80mph+, making the gap between the FB and CH a bit more normal. Keuchel’s getting both more whiffs AND more grounders with it, and perhaps more importantly, he’s actually running reverse platoon splits this year. That’s probably not going to continue, but he’s not getting annihilated by RHBs anymore. Finally, he’s refined the sinker/two-seamer to the point where it’s a historic ground-ball generating machine. To date this season, about 84% of sinkers put in play are on the ground, which has led to Keuchel’s impossible 67.7% ground ball rate. Keuchel was always a ground baller, but he’s become an off-the-charts worm burner despite the fact that his new slider’s not a real GB pitch. Instead, the change-up and sinker combine to make it almost impossible for righties to elevate the ball.
Mike Petriello notes that a part of the reason Keuchel’s generating so many grounders is that he’s getting hitters to expand the zone by targeting the area just below the zone. Both pitch fx and BIS show that his zone% dropped from 2013 to 2014, despite the fact that his walk rate has dropped for the second year in a row – plummeting to 5% in 2014. Still, if you look at any one pitch, nothing looks transformative. It’s not like he used to throw his change-up or sinker down the middle and now puts them all 4″ below the bottom of the zone. It’s a reminder of how a small change, or a series of small changes, can make a huge difference to a pitcher’s overall results.
1: Jones, CF
2: Romero, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Smoak, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Saunders, RF
8: Gillespie, LF
9: Miller, SS
He doesn’t have the name recognition, but Keuchel’s now a very tough opponent. It’s nice to acknowledge that and still have some confidence that the M’s guy’s better. Never leave us, Hisashi Iwakuma.
James Paxton had an up and down rehab start in Game 1 of the Rainiers double-header yesterday. On the plus side, he pitched in a professional game. On the down side, he gave up three runs in 3 IP with 5 Ks and 2 BBs. Worse, he told Lloyd McClendon he had some forearm tightness, which he characterized as “normal” but which probably isn’t reassuring to anyone.
Today’s MiLB starters include Lars Huijer in Clinton, Cam Hobson for Jackson, and James Gilheeney for Tacoma.
Speaking of the minors, the big story in the PCL today is that the Iowa Cubs have signed Manny Ramirez as a player/coach. Mike Curto helpfully points out that the I-Cubs visit Tacoma for the last home games of the year, from August 24th-27th. It’s possible that struggling superprospect Javier Baez may still be with them then too. In fact, having Ramirez work with Baez seems to be one of the reasons the Cubs made this move. Could be fascinating.