Astros: Dallas Keuchel has found his changeup

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - AUGUST 07: Dallas Keuchel #60 of the Houston Astros pitches against the San Francisco Giants in the bottom of the first inning at AT&T Park on August 7, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - AUGUST 07: Dallas Keuchel #60 of the Houston Astros pitches against the San Francisco Giants in the bottom of the first inning at AT&T Park on August 7, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

Part of me wonders if Dallas Keuchel had the same feeling of euphoria for his rediscovered changeup like I did when I found my lost wallet nestled in a seat cushion? Probably not.

The 2018 season was always going to be an important one for Dallas Keuchel. For one, it is his contract year. Second, he is a professional baseball player, so every season is likely very important to him. But one would assume that the allure of a lucrative long-term contract in a contract year is tremendous, and probably so for nearly everyone. Thankfully for the Astros, Keuchel was contractually obligated to pitch for the team in 2018. Anything beyond this season is an open question.

If Keuchel’s 2018 season can be summarized up to this point, it may include phrases like dependable or reliable. Steady, perhaps? The Astros’ bearded southpaw has generally been all of these adjectives this season as he has thrown 148 innings with a 3.53 ERA and 3.72 FIP. Those numbers won’t win him a second Cy Young award, but Keuchel has been roughly an above-average major league pitcher. These guys are valuable, as evident by his 2.5 fWAR. But like many baseball players, there have been a few peaks and a handful of valleys to traverse. Adjustments are needed, and Keuchel has gradually made one as the season has progressed.

Back when Keuchel won his only Cy Young award in 2015, he threw his changeup 13.8% of the time. By Pitch Values, his changeup was his third-most valuable pitch in 2015 at 7.1 wCH. Now, Keuchel’s bread-and-butter has historically been his sinker, cutter, and slider. But when the other pitches aren’t working like they should, a good changeup can come in handy. He has historically held opposing hitters to a sub-optimal batting average against the changeup since the 2015 season.

In the following years since his Cy Young award though, we’ve seen fluctuations in the changeup’s usage.

Changeup usage, 2016-18

2016: 9.3%

2017: 13.0%

2018: 11.7%

The 2016 season was a strange one for Keuchel as he dealt with left shoulder discomfort throughout the year. The issue limited the Astros’ ace to 168 innings and he was shut down for the rest of season by late August. The changeup resurfaced in 2017, yet Keuchel threw it less frequently as the season progressed. Perhaps a byproduct of his neck injury?

Fast forward to 2018, and the changeup continued its downward trend from 2017 to open the season. But the pitch has been making a comeback as the season has progressed, especially since late June. Here is an interesting excerpt and quote by pitching coach Brent Strom from the Houston Chronicle in Chandler Rome’s July 18th article about Keuchel’s approach and his changeup.

"Fine feel for his changeup now frees the inside part of the strike zone, where Keuchel can pounce with his sinking, two-seam fastballs that induce such soft contact.“He probably didn’t throw (the changeup) enough and he maybe got burned a couple times and shied away from it,” Strom said. “But I think he’s got a great feel for it now. And pitchers, just like hitters, they go in certain cycles where something feels good.”"

Like Strom quoted to the Houston Chronicle, a pitcher goes through cycles like hitters do throughout a season. Baseball is commonly referred to as a game of adjustments. And Keuchel has made the adjustment to use his changeup more frequently as the season has progressed. By intentional design or not, this year’s changeup has also been used in a similar location as his 2015 changeup. Even the velocity has been nearly the same between the two seasons.

By all appearances Keuchel has recaptured a dependable feeling for his changeup. While the changeup isn’t one of his well-known pitches, an effective one makes Keuchel even better. Since June 22nd when his usage of the changeup started to noticeably climb, the age-30 pitcher has a 2.53 ERA and 3.13 FIP in 57 innings. In all but one start since June 22nd, Keuchel has allowed no more than three earned runs in an appearance. The lone exception came on June 27th when he surrendered six earned runs to the Blue Jays, in which five of those runs were scored during the first inning. To his credit, he did hold Toronto’s offense to a 88.2 MPH exit velocity during his 5 1/3 innings of work. That said, there is more to Keuchel than his changeup. But I am saying that the adjustment with his changeup has been one of the reasons behind his recent resurgence.

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As the Astros prepare to make another push to the postseason, Keuchel’s return to form will remain important to monitor. If this trend continues, then Houston’s chances of qualifying and advancing through the postseason looks brighter. The renewed confidence in a changeup may be a key reason why.