Since 2012, Dallas Keuchel has transformed from fringe starter, to almost All-Star, to American League All-Star starter. He might just be getting started.
This time last year, Houston Astros’ ace Dallas Keuchel hadn’t just told the Nation in a televised interview, “I thought I was going to throw up.” That’s really not that embarrassing but it’s certainly not something your average ballplayer would say after just starting the All-Star Game for the American League, an honor not bestowed upon just any pitcher. Of course, Keuchel is no four-time All-Star and back-to-back All-Star game MVP like Mike Trout – or any kind of All-Star veteran at all, for that matter.
No, this time last year, Keuchel was enjoying a couple of days off from baseball, likely wishing he had made the All-Star roster. In fact, he almost had. In 2014, Keuchel went 9-5 with a 3.20 ERA in 17 starts for the Houston Astros. He had already pitched three complete games, one of which was a shutout, and was sporting a 1.18 WHIP. He’d done well enough to make the 2014 MLB All-Star Final Vote, but once that vote had been taken and the results recorded, Keuchel finished fifth out of the five American League candidates.
A starter for Houston since 2012, Keuchel’s first years were not easy for the left-hander or the team. Keuchel struggled going 9-18 in 38 starts and 47 appearances during his first two seasons in the big leagues, over which he posted a 5.20 ERA and a 1.54 WHIP.
Then, in 2014, he went from a guy who was considered a walk machine, having walked 91 batters in his first two seasons, to a strikeout-machine. Keuchel ended his rookie season with 39 walks and 38 strikeouts. By 2014, he’d added a swing-and-miss slider to his arsenal and improved his curveball, being able to get an obscene number of ground ball outs.
But the biggest part of his transformation from walking almost every batter to being in the top 10 in the league in strikeouts in the first half of 2014, was he’d developed his bread-and-butter pitch, gaining more control over it and increasing its velocity.
That pitch is his sinker, which he throws approximately 45 percent of the time. He evolved from a guy who lived outside the strike zone to a guy who attacked it, living inside of it, meaning that when he deviates from it, batters are more likely to swing and miss.
It appears that all Keuchel needed was a little more development time. Was he brought up to the big leagues too early? Not really; he was 24 years old after all. Perhaps he just needed a little more seasoning and a lot more confidence to become the pitcher he is today, a guy who gets the nod to start the All-Star Game.
Still, many questioned whether Keuchel could reproduce his 2014 name-making numbers. So far, he’s proven the naysayers wrong. pitching to a record of 11-4 with a 2.23 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP. He’s struck out 114 batters while walking just 34 in a league-leading 137.1 innings.
Despite his nervous stomach (he admitted to having a bit too much of an energy drink before the game, which couldn’t have helped) Keuchel pitched well in his two innings of work against the best the National League had to offer.
He retired some of the league’s biggest and best hitters in the first inning, getting Pittsburgh Pirates star Andrew McCutchen to pop out and retiring 2015 Home Run Derby Champ Todd Frazier, along with Nationals’ superstar Bryce Harper, on groundouts. He allowed an unearned run in the second inning, which was a bit tougher than his one-two-three first, but he ended up getting out of the inning relatively unscathed after allowing a single to Arizona Diamondbacks’ first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. He eventually became that unearned run, advancing to second on a throwing error by third baseman Josh Donaldson of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Keuchel then got San Francisco Giants’ catcher Buster Posey and Chicago Cubs’ first baseman Anthony Rizzo to both ground out before allowing a single to St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta that allowed Goldschmidt to score. He then recovered from a wild pitch to strike out the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Joc Pederson to end the inning.
And just like that, Keuchel’s night was over, one he later called, “the greatest experience of [his] life.” Keuchel’s transformation over the past three and a half seasons has been a pretty incredible one. He went from a pitcher who was unlikely to have a career at all, given his walk rate, to an All-Star Game Final Vote candidate, to the American League’s All-Star starter in 2015.
It’s a pretty great story, and one that Keuchel intends to continue. “It was super special. There are so many things about the last few days that will stick with me for the rest of the life,” Keuchel said. If he keeps this up, however, there should be plenty more like it.