The Yanks might see a different Dallas Keuchel in Game Five

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Once again, the Yankees have battled back from down 2-0 in a postseason series to knot things up 2-2. They did it against the Indians in the ALDS and now they’ve done it against the Astros in the ALCS. Their reward: Dallas Keuchel in Game Five and Justin Verlander in Game Six. That’s no fun. Then again, no one thought facing Corey Kluber in Game Five of the ALDS would be fun, and we know how that went.

Keuchel, as you know, shut the Yankees down in his team’s Game One win. Seven scoreless innings, four hits, one run, ten strikeouts. He was dominant. And he’s been dominant against the Yankees pretty much his entire career. The players change but Keuchel’s dominance against the laundry has remained the same.

In theory, seeing Keuchel for the second time in the span of a week should help. The Yankees are more familiar with him now, right? Ben Lindbergh’s research suggests otherwise. During the wildcard era, pitchers who made two starts in a single postseason series showed no significant change in performance in the second start, as long as they were on normal rest, like Keuchel will be in Game Five.

postseason-starters

Keep in mind that is a big picture look at things. That’s the average of 211 pitchers making multiple starts in one postseason series. In one individual game, anything can happen. The Yankees could benefit from seeing Keuchel for the second time in the series even though the research suggests it doesn’t really matter. And this works both ways. The Astros could benefit from seeing Masahiro Tanaka for the second time in Game Five too.

When Keuchel dominated the Yankees in Game One, he did it primarily with his sinker and slider. He threw 109 total pitches in the game and 57 were sinkers. Another 28 were sliders. That’s 52.8% sinkers and 25.8% sliders. His regular season averages: 50.8% sinkers and 18.7% sliders. Furthermore, Keuchel threw one (1) changeup in Game One. That’s all. He said Tuesday the pitch wasn’t working, so he had to lean on his slider instead.

“It mainly was a feel. I’m usually throwing 10-15, maybe 20% percent changeups, especially to this group being such good fastball hitters” said Keuchel yesterday when asked about not using his changeup in Game One. “And it was just the fact that I had some really late movement on my two-seam and my slider was really good, the cutter was decent. So I didn’t feel the need to change speeds with the changeup.”

That is sorta scary! Keuchel pitched so well in Game One despite not using his changeup, which is widely regarded as his best secondary pitch. He didn’t have a feel for the pitch, so he had to lean on the slider — and also the cutter, which he threw 19 times, way more than usual — and he still pitched effectively. Chances are Keuchel won’t eschew his changeup in Game Five. At least not if it’s working.

“Hopefully that comes into play tomorrow where they only saw one changeup,” added Keuchel.” It might come in handy … The changeup usually is the second to third best pitch. And for me to not use it hopefully will come into play for me tomorrow.”

On one hand, this sounds bad. Keuchel pitched well last time out and he did it without his best secondary pitch, and now he figures to break it out in Game Five. On the other hand, Keuchel has thrown only one changeup in the past 12 days. Including his ALDS start against the Red Sox, he’s thrown only seven changeups in the last 23 days. The changeup is a feel pitch, and if you don’t throw it much, it can be easy to lose that feel.

Even though the fastball-slider approach worked in Game One, my hunch is Keuchel will look to use his changeup more often in Game Five today, as long as the pitch is behaving properly. That means a new look for the Yankees, who didn’t see the pitch in Game One. With any luck, Keuchel will hang a few of those changeups and the Yankees will take advantage, or he’s miss out of the zone and put them in favorable counts. That’s where a potential lack of feel can come into play.

Either way, changeup or no changeup, I feel the key to beating Keuchel remains the same: wait him out. Houston’s middle relief is sketchy as hell right now — even Ken Giles, as good as he is, has allowed a run in all four postseason appearances so far — and the more bullpen the Yankees see, the better their chances of winning. Keuchel is awfully tough and he can frustrate opposing hitters and fans alike. The sooner the Yankees get him out of the game, the better.

Scouting Game One of the ALCS: Dallas Keuchel

(Bob Levey/Getty)
(Bob Levey/Getty)

In just a few hours the Yankees will open their ALCS matchup with the Astros at Minute Maid Park in Houston. The Yankees completed a pretty incredible comeback from down 0-2 in the ALDS to beat the Indians, the AL’s best team during the regular season. Now they’ll have to beat the AL’s second best team in the ALCS.

Against the Red Sox in the ALDS, the Astros started Justin Verlander in Game One and Dallas Keuchel in Game Two. Now, in the ALCS, Keuchel is starting Game One and Verlander is starting Game Two. That’s because Verlander threw 2.2 innings in relief in Game Four of the ALDS on Monday. First career relief appearance for him. He never even pitched out of the bullpen in college or the minors. Huh.

Verlander’s relief appearance means Keuchel starts Game One tonight, and Keuchel is something of a Yankees nemesis despite not playing in the same division. He beat the Yankees in the 2015 Wild Card Game, as you know, though he’s also had his way with them in the regular season. For his career, Keuchel has a 1.41 ERA (1.59 FIP) in six regular season starts against the Yankees, plus he threw six shutout innings on short rest in the 2015 Wild Card Game.

During the regular season the 29-year-old Keuchel threw 145.2 innings with a 2.90 ERA (3.79 FIP) in 23 starts. He also missed time with a neck injury. Among the 90 pitchers who threw at least 140 innings in 2017, his 66.8% ground ball rate was easily the highest (Marcus Stroman was second at 62.1%). Keuchel’s strikeout (21.4%) and walk (8.1%) rates were basically league average. Let’s break down Houston’s co-ace.

History Against The Yankees

Like I said, Keuchel has dominated the Yankees historically, but so did Corey Kluber and look how that turned out in the ALDS. I suspect we’re going to hear a lot about that 2015 Wild Card Game during the broadcast tonight, but keep in mind this is a different Yankees team. The only Yankees who were in the 2015 Wild Card Game starting lineup and are still with the team are Brett Gardner, Didi Gregorius, Greg Bird, and Chase Headley. And Headley’s not in the lineup tonight.

Overall, players on New York’s roster have hit .184/.215/.282 in 108 total plate appearances against Keuchel in his career, which dates back to the time before he emerged as an ace. I’m not sure why that history would be relevant now. Keuchel’s a different pitcher. Here are the numbers against Keuchel the last three years:

Name PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Chase Headley 18 18 3 0 0 0 1 0 8 .167 .167 .167 .333
Jacoby Ellsbury 13 12 1 0 0 0 1 0 2 .083 .083 .083 .167
Didi Gregorius 12 12 3 1 0 0 0 0 4 .250 .250 .333 .583
Aaron Hicks 12 10 1 0 0 1 1 2 3 .100 .250 .400 .650
Starlin Castro 9 9 2 1 0 0 2 0 5 .222 .222 .333 .556
Greg Bird 3 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 .333 .333 .333 .667
Brett Gardner 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 .000 .000 .000 .000
Matt Holliday 3 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 .333 .333 .333 .667
Aaron Judge 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
Austin Romine 3 3 2 1 0 0 1 0 0 .667 .667 1.000 1.667
Gary Sanchez 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
Total 82 79 14 3 0 1 6 2 29 .177 .198 .253 .451

Not gonna lie, when I looked up these numbers earlier today, I got worried we’d see Romine behind the plate tonight thanks to that 2-for-3 with a double line against Keuchel. Fortunately, that is not the case. That 2-for-3 with a double happened in a game last season, by the way.

Anyway, the head-to-head history still isn’t very good, though most players in that table only have three career plate appearances against Keuchel, so it’s not a ton of history. Neither Headley nor Ellsbury, who have combined for 31 of those 82 plate appearances against Keuchel, is in the lineup tonight. Noticeably absent from that table is Todd Frazier. He’s never faced Keuchel in his career.

In Game Two of the ALDS the Red Sox scored one run in 5.2 innings against Keuchel, forcing him to throw 96 pitches. The Red Sox don’t have a great offense though. The Yankees hit for considerably more power and are better at working the count and prolonging at-bats. That doesn’t automatically mean they’ll have more success against Keuchel, of course.

Current Stuff

Keuchel is a throwback. The Yankees just saw an Indians pitching staff loaded with power arms and wicked breaking balls. Keuchel is a finesse southpaw with a sinker that sits right around 90 mph. That’s the pitch that gave him the league’s best ground ball rate in 2017. Keuchel, similar to CC Sabathia, will bust righties inside with a cutter and get them to chase away with a changeup. He also has a good slider. Keuchel doesn’t bring a lot of velocity to the table, but he knows how to pitch. He’ll pitch inside and keep everything down.

Here is Keuchel’s regular season pitch selection, via Brooks Baseball:

dallas-keuchel-pitch-selection

Lefties get the slider, righties get the cutter and changeup. Pretty standard. Keuchel is quite similar to the current version of Sabathia, though his sinker is top notch and his cutter has more cutting action. Their style is similar though.

Here is every pitch Keuchel threw against the Athletics on April 30th of this season, when he allowed one run in 7.2 innings. The dead center field camera angle provides a great look at the movement on his pitches.

Everything Keuchel throws has some movement and that makes him awfully tough to square up. Among those 90 pitchers who threw at least 140 innings in 2017, Keuchel had the highest soft contact rate (25.4%) and the lowest hard contact rate (24.7%), and by quite a bit too. Kluber had the second highest soft contact rate at 24.4% while Max Scherzer and Jordan Montgomery (!) tied for the second lowest hard contact rate at 26.5%.

Keuchel is going to frustrate the hell out of hitters and also fans, who will see less than premium velocity and pitches that look hittable result in soft contact. The subtle movement keeps Keuchel away from the sweet spot though. That’s how he succeeds. If he throws something that starts belt high, it’ll finish down around the knees. If he throws something that starts at the knees, take it, because it’ll probably drop out of the zone.

Platoon Splits

Despite the lack of overpowering stuff, Keuchel has absolutely crushed lefties the last three seasons. He’s quite good against righties too, but against lefties, he’s incredibly dominant. Here are the 2015-17 platoon splits:

  • vs. RHB: .241/.300/.375 (.295 wOBA) with 21.2 K%, 7.4 BB%, 59.9 GB%
  • vs. LHB: .186/.221/.279 (.219 wOBA) with 25.6K%, 3.7 BB%, 67.4 GB%

Gardner, Gregorius, and Bird are the only lefties in tonight’s lineup, and they’re three guys who are going to play every game from here on out no matter what. Anything can happen in one individual game, but yeah, the righties are probably going to have to carry the offense against Keuchel tonight.

Can The Yankees Run On Him?

You know what? No. Shockingly. As I mentioned this morning, the Astros were by far the worst team in baseball at throwing out basestealers during the regular season. Keuchel, thanks in part to being left-handed, has an excellent pickoff move, however. Runners went 3-for-5 stealing bases against him in the regular season. That’s all. Over the last four seasons they’re 11-for-18. His pickoff move makes up for the terrible arms behind the plate.

Also, it’s worth noting Keuchel is the best fielding pitcher in baseball, which helps when you’re such an extreme ground ball pitcher. Bunting on him probably won’t work, at least not if you’re trying to bunt for a hit. Gardner unsuccessful tried to bunt for a hit on the first pitch of ALDS Game Five, though I don’t see that happening again against any pitcher, let along the best fielding pitcher in the game.

* * *

Because the Astros appear to have some middle relief issues, working the count and driving up the starter’s pitch count could have a huge impact on this series. I mean, that’s always a good strategy, but in the ALDS you knew Andrew Miller was going to be the first guy out of the bullpen, and that’s no fun. Chris Devenski faded down the stretch, so the Astros don’t have a Miller. The best plan of attack against Keuchel figures to be grinding out at-bats, waiting him out, then getting to the bullpen.

Yankees-Astros has the makings of a budding rivalry

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Teetering near mediocrity for 3-4 seasons has left the Yankees with few true rivals. But there may be a budding rivalry in the opposing dugout this weekend.

Since the Yankees last played a multi-game playoff series in 2012, the team has hovered near .500 and played fewer truly intense games. The exception would be in-division. The games against the Blue Jays the last two seasons have had fans on the edge of their seats, particularly after the Jays made moves at the 2015 trade deadline. The Orioles’ emergence since 2012 has led to a few interesting regular season series. The classic Yankees-Red Sox rivalry still exists, but I doubt anyone would consider it near its peak. David Ortiz’s retirement really drives that home.

The Bombers have had rivals outside the division in the past, particularly during the 1996-2012 period of constant contending for titles. The Mariners at the turn of the century. The Indians before them. The Angels and Tigers each beat the Yankees in the playoffs multiple times and it created a bit more importance for those series, particularly the Angels games. Anaheim was always the team that had the Yankees’ number in their 15 years of contention and it was brought to the surface in three playoff series over an eight-year span.

Ultimately, that’s probably the best way to create a rivalry: Close playoff series. If two teams play multiple tense series in a short time span, it can lead to regular season series that mirror the same character of a postseason series.

In that regard, the Astros and Yankees already have step one out of the way. The two players who hit home runs for the Astros in that 2015 Wild Card Game have moved on from Houston, but we still have both starting pitchers: Dallas Keuchel and Masahiro Tanaka.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

And I think that a potential rivalry can pivot on the abilities of Keuchel. His tormented the Yankees in 2015, both in the regular season and one postseason game. The Yankees kinda sorta maybe got to him in his two starts last year and then he looked like Cy Young for four innings on Thursday before grinding out the fifth and sixth innings. It seemed that to be a fait accompli that Keuchel would wiggle out of his self-made jams and get a lead to the Astros’ bullpen. Just like how the early 2000s Yankees-Red Sox rivalry rose to new heights with Pedro Martinez on the mound, Keuchel can take that role on. He’s imperfect with less intensity and flare on the mound, but he gives the Yankees a nemesis, a hurdle either in a regular season series or in the postseason. With that, perhaps he’s more similar to 2009-10 Cliff Lee than 1999-2004 Pedro, but still, a tough challenge.

Beyond one key starting pitcher, a rivalry also can be aided by similarly built teams going to battle and we certainly have that with Astros-Yankees. A lot of young, exciting position players poised to man the middle of the lineup for the next decade? Check. Bullpens full of flame throwers? You got it. They both have questions in their rotation and have been linked to Jose Quintana this last offseason. With the young talent on these teams, it’s not hard to see ESPN, Fox or TBS market a series centered around Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve vs. Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge. They’re not limited in that regard as the teams seem to match each other budding star for budding star.

With their similar constructions also comes a similar timeline for success in this case: Both teams are rising to the top of the American League at the same time. Many in baseball foresaw the Astros’ success this year, perhaps as far as three years in advance. (Thanks Sports Illustrated!) Even though the Yankees came out of nowhere for some, they seem to be a team on the cusp of contention with their strongest days ahead of them.

This weekend’s series with the Astros may be getting overshadowed by the sweep of the Cubs and the upcoming festivities for Derek Jeter, yet it’s still an important series. Important at least for mid-May. Houston is a useful measuring stick for the Yankees, bringing a team just as hot as them into Yankee Stadium for four games. Come out with three wins and you gain a lot of respect. Lose three of four or get swept and it will be much easier nationally to dismiss the Yankees as a flash in the pan, a team not quite there.

Without 1-2 more playoff series between the two franchises, it will be hard to create a real rivalry. Close games like Thursday night can nudge it that way and so could a brawl, although the latter isn’t something for which to rot. A larger impediment is that they’re limited to 6-7 regular season games a year spread out over two series, not the 19 games the Yankees play against the Red Sox. But as far as rivalries go outside the AL East, the Astros are the best bet for one over the next half decade.

Swinging early in the count may be Yankees’ best chance against Dallas Keuchel

(Scott Halleran/Getty)
(Scott Halleran/Getty)

Later tonight the Yankees will face Dallas Keuchel in the winner-take-all wildcard game. If I had to hand-pick any pitcher in the big leagues to face the Yankees in an elimination game, I’m pretty sure I’d pick Keuchel. He’s the embodiment of everything the Yankees seem unable to solve, and by that I mean he’s a left-handed finesse guy with a changeup and command. If he were a rookie too, forget it. Game over.

Anyway, the postseason is not easy, and if you’re going to win the World Series, you have to beat pitchers like Keuchel. He’s a legitimate Cy Young candidate, and while he will be working on three days’ rest of the first time in his career tonight, I’m not sure fatigue will be a huge issue. Keuchel will have plenty of adrenaline pumping in his first career postseason start. Solving Keuchel is no easy task. Few teams have done it this year. Here’s a look at how the Yankees may be able to do it.

Head-to-Head Stats

This seems like a convenient place to start. I absolutely believe certain hitters can “own” certain pitchers and vice versa, but head-to-head stats don’t help us identify those matchups well. We’re usually talking about only a handful of at-bats spread across several years. That said, Joe Girardi relies on head-to-head data all the time, and I’m sure it’ll factor into his lineup decision. Here are the numbers, via Baseball Reference:

Name PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Chris Young 21 20 6 2 1 0 2 1 2 .300 .333 .500 .833
Chase Headley 13 13 3 1 0 1 3 0 6 .231 .231 .538 .769
Carlos Beltran 10 9 4 1 0 1 2 1 1 .444 .500 .889 1.389
Jacoby Ellsbury 8 7 2 0 0 0 0 1 1 .286 .375 .286 .661
Dustin Ackley 7 7 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 .000 .000 .000 .000
Alex Rodriguez 7 7 1 0 0 0 0 0 4 .143 .143 .143 .286
Brendan Ryan 6 6 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
John Ryan Murphy 5 5 2 0 0 0 0 0 1 .400 .400 .400 .800
Stephen Drew 4 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000
Brett Gardner 4 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Didi Gregorius 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
Gregory Bird 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
Total 92 89 18 4 1 2 8 3 25 .202 .228 .337 .565

This is Keuchel’s third full season in the big leagues and only his second as a full-time starter, so it’s no surprise the head-to-head plate appearances are limited. He’s not even in the same division. Keuchel totally dominated the Yankees in two starts this season (16 shutout innings with 21 strikeouts), so it’s no surprise the head-to-head numbers aren’t good. How much does this tell us going into tonight? Not much really. Keuchel is very good. We knew that already.

The Stuff

Keuchel is not a power pitcher. His fastest pitch of the season was 94.9 mph back in May. He hasn’t throw a pitch over 92.0 mph since August, so says PitchFX. Keuchel is a four-pitch pitcher with a sinker right around 90 mph, a cutter in the upper-80s, and both a slider and changeup right around 80 mph. He’ll occasionally throw an upper-80s/low-90s four-seamer as a get me over pitch. Words don’t do much, so here’s some video of Keuchel in action this season.

As you can see, he locates just about everything to both of the plate, and everything seems to break late. I have no idea how to quantify this, but my guess is all of Keuchel’s pitches look the same out of his hand. He must be real tough to pick up.

Like most pitchers, Keuchel attacks early in the count with his fastball (sinker, in his case) then goes to town with his offspeed stuff. The changeup is for righties but he will throw the slider to both righties and lefties. Here’s his pitch usage breakdown by handedness, via Brooks Baseball:

Dallas Keuchel pitch selection

I know we’re all used to the “take pitches, work the count, get the pitch count up” approach and it is pretty successful, by and large. The Yankees tried it against Keuchel in his two starts this season, at least early in the game, but it didn’t work. He fills the strike zone then goes to his offspeed stuff when ahead in the count.

Considering the data shows Keuchel throws a lot of first pitch sinkers, I think it might be worth it to forget the whole “work the count” approach and instead look to ambush some sinkers early in the count. Opponents hit .307 with a .119 ISO on the first pitch against Keuchel and .291 with a .148 ISO when putting one of the first two pitches of the at-bat in play. From the third pitch of the at-bat onward, opponents hit .187 with an .077 ISO against Keuchel this year. Big difference!

Of course, the “swing early in the count” approach could very easily backfire, especially if Keuchel has his sinker working. If those early count swings don’t turn into hits, the Yankees are going to look up in the fourth inning and see Keuchel’s pitch count in the 30s or 40s. That would be a problem. The data suggests Keuchel is going to throw his sinker early in the count. If he’s leaving the pitch up in the first inning, it might be time to swing away early in the at-bat.

The Running Game

As a lefty, Keuchel has an inherent advantage when it comes to shutting down the running game. He’s staring at the base-runner at first base the entire time. Opponents attempted only five stolen bases against Keuchel this year — all five were successful! — and only 31 in his 671 career innings. That’s nothing. Teams don’t run on him.

So Keuchel must have a great pickoff move, right? Well, no. In fact, he very rarely throws over to first base. He made five (!) pickoff throws to first base last season and only 19 this season, according to Sporting Charts. That works out to 0.08 pickoff throws per base-runner, or one every 12.5 base-runners. That’s not even one pickoff throw per start.

This seems like something the Yankees might be able to exploit, right? Specifically Jacoby Ellsbury. (I think Brett Gardner‘s going to sit in favor of Chris Young tonight, but we’ll see.) Ellsbury attempted only eleven stolen bases after coming off the DL, but three of them came in the last two weeks of the season. He was successful all three times. So at least he started to run a little more late in the year.

Ellsbury’s quick and usually an aggressive base-runner, and Keuchel is not going to throw over to first base all that often. Considering opponents never run on him, I’m guessing Keuchel varies his times well and has a quick slide step, but Ellsbury can generally outrun that stuff. He’s an elite base-runner when healthy. Pushing the envelope on the bases, even with something as simple as taking a bigger than usual lead, could be in the cards. That assumes Ellsbury actually gets on base against Keuchel, who dominates lefties.

Fatigue?

Keuchel is starting on three days’ rest for the first time … as a big leaguer. He did it in college when Arkansas went to the 2009 College World Series. Doing it in the big leagues is different than doing it in college, sure, but it’s not a completely new experience to him either. The Astros wouldn’t throw him out there if they didn’t believe he was up for it.

(Brandon Wade/Getty)
(Brandon Wade/Getty)

“I can’t really tell you maybe (the adrenaline is) going to help me throw 91 instead of 90. I don’t know,” said Keuchel to reporters yesterday. “It’s a big game. So I’m sure I’ll be up for it no matter what. But at this point in time, the routine is there. I feel comfortable going in. I feel great. There’s no end-of-the-season fatigue, I feel like. So I’m excited.”

How will we be able to tell whether Keuchel is fatigued? Boy, I have no idea. Wildness and reduced velocity would be one way, but that’s about it as far as the eye test goes. We could look at the PitchFX data and compare release points and movement and things like that, but that doesn’t help in real time. The hitters will tell us if Keuchel is fatigued. Are they taking comfortable swings? That’ll be the best indication.

In a winner-take-all game, I can’t imagine Astros skipper A.J. Hinch will leave Keuchel out there long if he thinks he is fatigued and unable to compete at a high level. The Yankees should just forget about the short rest thing as far as I’m concerned. Assume Keuchel is at 100% and won’t lose anything as his pitch count climbs. This is no game to get caught waiting around.

* * *

There’s no denying Keuchel is a tremendous pitcher. He’s a bonafide ace with unconventional methods. Keuchel dominates by keeping the ball on the ground, not by missing bats or blowing the ball by hitter. He has struggled on the road this season — struggled is a relative term, Keuchel had 1.46 ERA (2.04 FIP) at home and a 3.77 ERA (4.01 FIP) on the road in 2015 — and he will be working on short rest, which may or may not come into play.

The Yankees have seen Keuchel twice this year, and while he dominated them both times, getting two looks at him has value. They’ve seen him up close. There’s no mystery. (Or at least there’s less of a mystery.) It appears hunting sinkers early in the count may lead to positive results, and if Ellsbury gets on base he should take an exaggerated lead given Keuchel’s lack of pickoff throws. Other than that, hope Keuchel has an off night. He’s tough.