The hopes of the 2017 starting rotation largely hinges on the health of two Astros pitchers.
If you may begrudgingly recall, Keuchel’s 2016 season was one of disappointment. Fresh off winning a Cy Young award the previous season, the expectations were high. Of course it was unrealistic to expect the left-hander to replicate that kind of performance. But that is besides the point. The idea was that Keuchel would once again anchor a playoff-caliber rotation. It was actually an understandable position to take when you consider Keuchel’s success the previous two seasons.
2014 pitching metrics: 2.93 ERA, 3.21 FIP, 3.20 xFIP, 0.50 HR/9 in 29 starts
2015 pitching metrics: 2.48 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 2.75 xFIP, 0.66 HR/9 in 33 starts
Those are numbers reserved for the best starting pitchers in baseball. However, baseball is baseball. And one’s good fortune can quickly be turned on its head.
2016 pitching metrics: 4.55 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 3.53 xFIP, 1.07 HR/9 in 26 starts
These weren’t exactly terrible numbers. But when you expect for a pitcher to lead your rotation, they are not quite optimal numbers.
Of course, we have to consider that the league did raise the strike zone up. That likely had an impact on Keuchel’s results as he previously relied upon called strikes in the bottom portion of the zone. Once certain calls stop coming then that changes the way a pitcher goes about his business. A snowball effect in other words.
Then there was his shoulder injury that prohibited Keuchel from completing the season last year. The subsequent recovery as we all know would be imperative to his 2017 season. And so far it appears that his recovery has gone well.
The key for Keuchel likely lies in the return of velocity in general. But he needs it the most in two of his pitches: the sinker and slider.
For a pitcher like Keuchel, any lost velocity is a damaging factor to his arsenal. While some pitchers can get by with a drop of 1-2 MPH, there are some that can’t accomplish the same feat. I’m afraid that could be the case with the Astros southpaw.
Look back at his 2014 velocity as a starting point, which was his “breakout” season. Keuchel’s sinker velocity was averaging out to 90.49 MPH. His slider, the second-most used pitch in arsenal, averaged out to 80.42 MPH. Then 2015, his Cy Young campaign, we see similar results with an average sinker and slider velocity of 90.39 MPH and 80.17 MPH, respectively.
Then we enter last season, which was the disappointing follow up to an exciting 2015 season. And we witnessed Keuchel’s average velocity dipped even further as his average sinker and slider velocity dropped to 89.26 MPH and 78.84 MPH. That’s not good.
This trend of declining of velocity is quite worrisome. Like I stated before, Keuchel is the type of pitcher that you don’t want to see an ongoing decrease in overall velocity. He doesn’t have much to spare in the first place.
The shoulder injury appears to have inhibited Keuchel by some extent all season long last year.
That very issue could be the culprit behind his decreased velocity. But we will likely have to wait until the early portion of the season to know for sure one way or another in regards to his velocity issues.
You also have to consider that the shoulder issues may have originated from his extensive use the previous two seasons, including the playoffs. The time off from essentially last August through the winter could be the trick to return him to previous levels of efficiency. That also includes his velocity.
Once all factors are summed (decreased velocity, raised strike zone, shoulder injury), then it is easier to understand why Keuchel struggled. All the factors that could go against him basically did, and he still somehow managed a 2.7 WAR last year. But if his velocity returns and he remains relatively healthy, then the odds could be favorable for a Keuchel comeback in 2017. Just remember though that a repeat of 2016 simply won’t do as the Astros aim for postseason glory.
**Statistics and pitch velocity courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball**