Dallas Keuchel and the path to stardom

He did it himself. Hard work. Determination. Analysis. Confidence. Never overlook those things. Everything begins with his own inner-drive and confidence. Dallas Keuchel was the 221st player taken in the 2009 Draft, so not everyone believed he would be this good.

Because he didn’t have a blazing fastball–ranked 45th in the AL at 89.6 mph by Fangraphs.com–he was harder to project as a major league starter. Even the scouts who appreciated his smarts and his aptitude and work ethic at the University of Arkansas just weren’t sure he would make it.

Indeed, he might have been on the edge when the new boys arrived after the 2011 season. He’d gotten to Class AAA by then, but had been hit hard.

Four seasons later, he stands as an endorsement of how the Houston Astros have done business since owner Jim Crane hired GM Jeff Luhnow after the 2011 season. Keuchel hasn’t just proven he belongs in the big leagues although that was the first step.

During the last two seasons, only King Felix, Jon Lester and Chris Sale have lower ERAs among American League starting pitchers.

This season, Keuchel is front and center in every Cy Young Award/All-Star conversation. With the Astros having spent the last 69 consecutive days atop the AL West, with them sporting the third-best record in baseball (43-32) and the second-largest division lead (5 games), Keuchel has emerged as a bona fide star.

After Thursday’s complete-game shutout of the Yankees, he’s first in the AL in innings, batting average (.194) and WAR (4.1), second in wins (9) and WHIP (.96) and third in ERA (2.17).

He’s doing it primarily with four pitches: fastball, slider, change and cutter. Given that 89.6-mph velocity, he’s a reminder that the most important pitching variables will always be location and movement.

He has learned to pitch to contact, and because of his ability to move the ball around and to get movement on so many pitches, hitters simply don’t square up many balls.

Only 20.4 percent of his pitches have been hard hit, the lowest percentage in the AL, according to Fangraphs.com, and 25.3 percent of them are softly hit. That may be why his BABIP is .233, also the lowest in the AL.

Again, the Astros would like to emphasize that Keuchel’s greatness is primarily a product of his physical gifts and his ability to maximize them.

But he’s also a ringing endorsement for Luhnow and his staff and the way they evaluate pitchers and scout opponents and all of that. In other words, everything is connected to every other little thing.

Theirs is a simple approach: Attack the strike zone, don’t be afraid to throw above the belt and believe in your stuff. All of this work is a product of an analytics department that allowed the pitchers to emphasize what they did well and get away from what was getting them beat.

As I wrote during Spring Training, Keuchel’s success began with a remake of his delivery suggested by Astros pitching coach Brent Strom and bullpen coach Craig Bjornson.

“If you look back to his video in 2011-12, it was a completely different movement pattern,” Strom said. “He’s quicker to the plate.”

He’s so quick that he has allowed just three stolen bases the last two seasons. But that’s just part of this success story.

“Dallas very rarely misses badly, and I think hitters realize that, so they’re always on swing mode,” Strom said. “He makes a lot of his pitches look like they’re going to be strikes, and they end up being balls. And he makes balls look like strikes, which is what you want.”

In eliminating his curveball and focusing on his slider, he went back to the pitch that had played a role in his emergence in high school and at the University of Arkansas. Keuchel’s attitude was also a factor.

“I wasn’t afraid of contact,” Keuchel said. “That’s the biggest thing. That goes back to confidence. In hitter’s counts, I wasn’t afraid to use any pitch. I have some pretty good late sink on my fastball, and that helped out. Just being confident and throwing it in the count was huge.”

And along the way, his confidence has grown day by day. As he has had success by being aggressive in the strike zone and trusting his stuff, he has gotten better and better.

Teams have adjusted to him, that is, laying off some of the high stuff. But he is so good at commanding the entire strike zone, that he has had an answer.

There are dozens of sweet, sweet stories around these Astros in 2015. None of them is sweeter than Dallas Keuchel’s path to stardom.

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