Why Dallas Keuchel will produce better results for Braves

Dallas Keuchel made his MLB debut June 17, 2012, for the Astros

Dallas Keuchel won the AL Cy Young Award four years ago. The Braves weren’t getting that pitcher. It was more reasonable to expect results such as his All-Star first half in 2017 or his effective, innings-eating campaign in 2018.

Instead, the Braves have gotten a 4.83 ERA from Keuchel through 10 starts. That number doesn’t tell the whole story, of course. But raise your hand if you thought Keuchel’s ERA now would be higher than Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Julio Teheran. Keuchel was supposed to be the instant ace, after all.

Keuchel on Wednesday is scheduled to face the Mets, a pretty good hitting team. In Keuchel’s previous start, the Marlins, the NL’s worst-hitting team, tagged him for eight runs. Keuchel shrugged that one off as an aberration.

“Outside of last start, I feel like I’ve been as good as I’ve ever been,” Keuchel said Tuesday at SunTrust Park.

I think there’s something to that because most of Keuchel’s markers look the same as always. He’s induced a lot of ground balls. His walk rate is low. Keuchel has averaged six innings during his 10 starts, about one-third of an inning less than his career average, but the same as in 2018.

Keuchel’s one big issue has been home runs allowed. He’s surrendered 11 over 59-2/3 innings. Keuchel has given up multiple homers in three starts, the same amount as he did over 34 games in 2018. Throw out Keuchel’s last outing, and it’s eight homers allowed in 56 innings, which still is just OK.

But I see at least two very good reasons to believe Keuchel will get the homers under control. One is the high rates of ground balls, a given for Keuchel. Also, there’s just no way that so many of the fly balls hit against Keuchel will keep ending up as home runs.

This season 30.6 percent of them have ended up in the stands. That’s by far the highest percentage of any pitcher in the majors with at least 50 innings. The league average is usually about 10 percent of fly balls going for homers, and Keuchel’s career average is 15 percent.

Home runs per fly ball tend to fluctuate wildly over a small sample. Eventually, fewer of the balls hit in the air against Keuchel will clear the wall. Once that happens, then Keuchel will be a pitcher the Braves can confidently ride into the postseason.

“I have made a few bad pitches,” Keuchel said. “A few of those I felt like shouldn’t have gone out. But that’s the price you pay for ‘juiced’ balls.”

MLB's live ball is less likely to hurt Keuchel in the long run. When batters put Keuchel's pitches in play this season they are hit on the ground 58.2 percent of the time. That nearly matches his career 58.8 percent ground-ball percentage. It isn't far from the 61.7 percent in 2015, when Keuchel won the AL Cy Young Award.

Keuchel is going to keep getting lots of ground balls. He’s got a good infield defense behind him. The few fly balls he allows won’t keep leaving the park at the same rate. And a different pitch mixture also might help Keuchel.

Keuchel’s slider used to be among his best pitches because of its big, sweeping break. It’s lost some bite since 2016 but remained a good pitch. Yet this season Keuchel has thrown sliders only 9.1 percent of the time. He’s never thrown it less than 18.1 percent of time in any season.

Keuchel essentially has substituted a sharp slider for what’s been a flat cut fastball. Look at videos of Kuechel’s cutters this season and you’ll see they haven’t had much life. Five of the homers he’s allowed were hit against cutters that didn’t cut much.

The return of a plus slider to Keuchel’s repertoire would be a big boost. He said the lack of them so far wasn’t part of his plan.

“It’s just kind of the way it’s worked out right now,” Keuchel said. “I’m hoping to start using it a little bit more and more towards the end of the season. It’s been feeling better, so we’ll continue to add that in.”

In some ways, examining Keuchel’s stuff is beside the point. He’s never relied on big pitch velocity and movement. His strengths are using his good sinker to get ground balls and precise control. Keuchel is a crafty, smart pitcher who knows how to set hitters up.

Maybe Keuchel will find a better rhythm with more innings. He was a free agent until the Braves signed him June 7. But Keuchel dismisses the notion that those circumstances have affected his performance.

“I feel like I’ve answered this question a whole lot,” Keuchel said. “No, I felt like I was ready to go. I don’t make excuses for anything. I wouldn’t have only thrown two minor-league starts if I needed more.”

Fewer innings means less wear and tear for Keuchel. He pitched through shoulder pain in 2016 and paid for it with a bad season. After that, Keuchel vowed to speak up as soon as he didn’t feel right. When a neck injury bothered Keuchel in 2017, he shut it down for a month.

Keuchel made 12 more starts that season for a total of 23 on the season. He was ready by the time October came and pitched well for the Astros on the way to the World Series. Cut down on the homers, and there’s a chance Keuchel can help the Braves do the same.

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