Dallas Keuchel: Lessons in Variance

The Cy Young Award winner has had a career of randomness.


Prospects are often spoken of in terms of their floors and ceilings. Only the most perceived sure-fire prospects are thought to have a high floor and a high ceiling. Most with superstar potential are also thought to be able to flop incredibly.

When we think about how a young player’s career will pan out, we often believe that they’ll adhere to their ceiling or floor through most of it. Some, however, realize the highest highs and the lowest lows over their time in the big leagues.

Dallas Keuchel is one such player. He never garnered any real attention as a prospect and debuted in 2012 with a 5.27 ERA in 16 starts. In 31 games and 22 starts in 2013, he posted a 5.15 ERA and seemed destined to be a left-handed swingman.

Naturally, Keuchel would go on a biblical run over the next two seasons, culminating in a Cy Young Award in 2015. After reaching his ceiling, he went on to produce inconsistent numbers.


Variance Personified


The first piece of Keuchel’s career that doesn’t make a ton of sense is his breakout. His results through his first two seasons were deeply underwhelming and little on the periphery pointed to a major uptick in production.

With a roughly 90 MPH fastball in tow, the lefty did not miss many bats in 2012 and 2013. He posted a K/9 of 6.06 and a BB/9 of 3.43, good for a K/BB ratio of just 1.77. In his rookie campaign, his BB/9 was higher than his K/9. He gave up the long ball at a clip of 1.28 per 9 innings.

All of this would change in the third season of Keuchel’s career. All of this except, of course, the fastball velocity. That remained around 90 MPH. The K’s ticked up a hair to 6.57 per 9 innings, but everything else improved drastically.

He cut the walks down to 2.16 per 9 and the home runs down to an elite 0.50 per 9. Accompanying this improvement was a staggering 63.5% groundball rate, a harbinger of things to come for Keuchel. The results reflected the improvement, as he registered a 2.93 ERA, further legitimized by a 3.21 FIP in 2oo innings pitched.

Lest we think it a fluke, Keuchel followed up his breakout with a Cy Young Award-winning campaign in 2015. His 8.38 K/9 and 1.98 BB/9 were career-bests, marking the only season in which he recorded a K/BB north of 4.0. He registered 20 wins with a 2.48 ERA in 232 innings.

So, what changed to cause the emergence of a dominant pitcher? In short, not much. His chase and whiff rates both improved, but only marginally. He did, notably, throw more strikes. His 2015 walk rate of 5.6% was a career-best. He threw them in the right part of the zone, as well, generating average launch angles of 1.1 degrees and inducing ground balls at a 61.7% clip.

There are some signs that point to some good fortune in Keuchel’s dominant 2015. His .269 BABIP against was well below league-average and well below his career average, as was a LOB% nearing 80%. But then, you’d somewhat expect these numbers to exceed the rest of the league simply due to the number of ground balls he generated.

Perhaps just as interesting as Keuchel’s breakout is what followed. Since his Cy Young campaign, he’s thrown at least 100 innings in 5 seasons. His ERA’s in those seasons were 4.55, 2.90, 3.74, 3.74 and 5.28. The strikeouts never reached the same heights, ranging from 5.28 to 7.72 in that 5 year period, nor did the command. In fact, in the 8 years since his dominant 2015, he’s walked nearly 3 batters per 9 innings.


Lessons Learned


Keuchel has led a strange career. He’s achieved the highest honor bestowed upon major league pitchers. He also pitched to a 9.20 ERA in 60.2 innings in 2020. So what can this bizarre run spanning two decades tell us about pitching and variance?

Simplistically, Keuchel’s story illustrates one of the many beauties of baseball. A young pitcher with no prospect pedigree or velocity to speak of found something that worked and captured it for a torrid two year stretch. He tailored the game to his style, not the other way around. And he succeeded.

It’s also a great example of why the strikeout is so important. Of course, as fantasy players, we value the strikeout. But ever increasingly, so do big league teams and their pitchers. As Keuchel’s trajectory demonstrates, it’s hard to pitch to contact and consistently succeed, much less dominate. The fact that his best year featured career-high strikeouts and career-low walks is no coincidence. Nor is it coincidence that those years also featured some of his best in stranding runners.

Age regression is, of course, a factor, as Keuchel’s average 4-seam velocity has dipped south of 88 MPH. But he never overpowered anyone, and the latter portion of his career has been sprinkled with success and failure as a result. Despite the wide range of outcomes, since his Cy Young season, he’s still produced a serviceable 4.28 ERA with a 4.21 FIP.

Lastly, Keuchel’s career demonstrates the value and effectiveness of sample size. In the 8 seasons he’s posted at least 100 innings pitched, the absolute values of his ERA-FIP differential were 0.90, 0.28, 0.43, 0.68, 0.89, 0.05, 0.97, and 0.05. His career mark is 0.01. His career LOB rate normalized to around 70%, as did his BABIP against to .298.

In other words, pitchers tend to end up being what they can control. Missing as many bats as possible and walking as few as possible, it turns out, is really important.





Jack Connors

Jack Connors is an avid Pittsburgh sports fan. In his free time, he enjoys playing golf and the guitar, and hanging out with his dog.

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