Dallas Keuchel Is Not Pitching Like a Cy Young Winner in 2016

Houston's ace has been struggling to start the year. Is there reason to worry?

Last season, the Houston Astros won 86 games and made the playoffs for the first time since 2005.

The ace of their rotation was Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, who threw 232 innings and went 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA.

However, the start of this season has been quite the struggle for both the Astros and Keuchel.

Houston has stumbled out of the gate to a 8-17 record through their first 25 games. Keuchel, meanwhile, has started five games, been charged with the loss three times, and owns a 4.41 ERA, his worst since 2013.

Keuchel’s WHIP of 1.41 and ERA+ of 86 (a value of 100 represents an average pitcher) are also his worst since his 2013 season.

What has been wrong with Keuchel so far this season, and should the Astros be worried?

Reasons Not to Worry

In his 32.2 innings thrown this year, Keuchel has registered a FIP of 3.04, which is right in line with his 2.91 last season.

Also, Keuchel has been victimized by a .330 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) this season. The average BABIP in Major League Baseball is .300, so Keuchel has been getting pretty unlucky in that regard.

Lastly, Keuchel has been very effective at not giving up the long ball. He’s given up just one home run all year, for a mark of 0.28 home runs per nine innings, which would be the lowest rate of his career.

Reasons to Worry

First off, Keuchel’s walk rate to start this season is troublesome. It currently stands at 9.4%, which translates to 3.6 walks per nine innings. Both of those rates are his highest since his rookie season in 2012.

Further, Keuchel is giving up the second-highest rate of “hard contact” in his career. This season, batters are hitting the ball off of Keuchel with a hard exit speed 28.6% of the time.

They did so just 21.3% of the time last season and just 19.7% the year before that.

Also, Keuchel has been giving up more line drives and getting fewer ground balls than usual to start this season.

Year Line Drive % Ground Ball %
2014 17.2% 63.5%
2015 18.7% 61.7%
2016 25.0% 55.2%

As shown, batters are hitting line drives 25% of the time this year, much more often than against Keuchel the past two seasons.

Additionally, Keuchel is getting ground balls at just a 55.2% clip, the lowest since his rookie year.

Lastly, what’s really interesting has been the change in Keuchel’s pitching repertoire this season.

Year Fastball Cutter Slider Change-Up
2014 57.3% 6.9% 20.7% 15.1%
2015 56.1% 9.8% 20.3% 13.7%
2016 42.8% 19.6% 27.2% 10.5%

Keuchel’s average velocity on all his pitches has been down this season, just 87.9 miles per hour on his fastball, 77.1 on his slider, and 84.7 on his cutter, which are all the lowest of his career.

Even Keuchel’s change-up, which averages 78.7 miles per hour, is at the lowest velocity since 2013.

This season, Keuchel is throwing his fastball just 42.8% of the time, noticeably less often than in the last few years. Keuchel has filled that drop-off in fastballs by throwing his cutter 19.6% of the time, easily the highest percentage of his career. Keuchel is also throwing his slider more often than ever before, on 27.2% of his pitches, and throwing his change-up less often than ever before, on just 10.5% of his pitches.

It might suit him best to go back to pitching off his fastball and sprinkling in his slider, cutter, and change-up like he did in 2014 and 2015.

What to Expect

Dallas Keuchel’s talent certainly hasn’t decreased suddenly, and he’s just 24 years old, but the drop-off in velocity is something to monitor.

If he goes back to pitching primarily with his fastball, pounding the strike zone, and keeping the ball low, he can return to his masterful performance of 2015.

But, if he doesn’t change his strategy on the mound, it seems he will continue to struggle.