Statcast of the Day: Keuchel owns low zone

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But everything else was about Keuchel’s night — a night in which he allowed just those two runs on six hits while going the distance in a 4-2 win — was par for his course in 2017. In the midst of baseball’s elevation revolution, Keuchel’s impeccable command low in the zone has made him one of the sport’s sharpest early success stories, has conjured up memories of his ’15 Cy Young Award season and quelled all that preseason talk about the Astros needing to acquire an “ace.”

The anti-ground-ball movement has little traction against a guy so good at getting ground balls.

“He can prey on that [mindset],” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “You try to pull a ball with a guy who keeps the ball down or gets the ball in the air, it’s advantage: pitcher. So his style hasn’t changed a ton. [If] the philosophies have changed in the industry, he can expose that a little bit.”

Hinch on Keuchel's outing

Tribe manager Terry Francona might not have intended to provide such cunning punning when he told reporters that Keuchel (4-0, 1.22 ERA) is “on a roll,” but the phrase works pretty well.

Keuchel came into this start having induced a league-leading ground-ball percentage of 64.9 percent (min. 50 balls in play), according to Statcast™. And in this start he recorded 15 ground-ball outs, including three ground-ball double plays. 

How does Keuchel do it? Well, for one, he entered Tuesday’s start with the sixth-lowest spin rate among all pitchers and the lowest among left-handers with his two-seam fastball (2,002 rotations per minute). On a two-seamer, less spin allows the ball to dive, which helps induce grounders. On Tuesday, Keuchel threw the pitch 54 times with an average spin rate of 2,011 RPM.

But Keuchel’s skillset has evolved beyond the time-worn label of “sinkerball guy who gets a bunch of grounders.” His slider also gets an inordinate number of worm-burners (57 percent of balls put in play). And the development of his changeup has made him the total package capable of befuddling batters, to the tune of 30 called strikes Tuesday.

Remember when the Players Association shot down that MLB proposal to raise the lower edge of the strike zone from the hollow below the knee to the top of the kneecap? You can probably guess where Keuchel stood on that issue. He lives in that low zone, and he exploits it.

Keuchel entered Tuesday tied with the Padres’ Clayton Richard for the highest percentage of pitches on the corners (11.7), and the sweeping action on his slider to the low corners and the outskirts of the strike zone compels chases, like when he K’d Brantley to start the seventh.

“He gets a lot of strikes that are borderline just because he’s always hitting his spot and throws it where he wants to,” Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo said.

On a night in which he got 19 outs on three pitches or less, Keuchel spent some of his postgame session with reporters bemoaning the times he fell behind. That’s how high a standard he’s set for himself.

“I was trying to be a little careful but at the same time trying to make quality pitches,” he said.

The quality of the Astros’ rotation was a question coming into the year. Keuchel had shoulder issues amid his steep fall last season, and Lance McCullers battled injury issues of his own. But those two have been terrific so far in ’17, and Keuchel, in particular, has calmed a lot of the noise about trade target Jose Quintana.

He’s also clearly countered the fly-ball fixation. We can talk about launch angle all we want. But when a guy is this sharp in the low zone, batters’ attempts to elevate are mostly going to be topped, if you can make contact at all.

“It’s no secret what he does,” Francona said. “If you can lay off that pitch and maybe get in some deeper counts or make him get it up, you’ve got a better chance, but it’s really hard because there’s so much movement.”

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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