Runs aren’t the only support Dallas Keuchel will need to have a repeat performance in 2015.
Keuchel, who takes the ball for the Houston Astros Monday, on Opening Day for the first time in his career, throws a game predicated on creating ground balls.
Like, a lot of ground balls.
Last season, his ground ball rate (the percentage of balls in play that are grounders) was 63.5 percent — far and away the best among MLB starters and the highest in a single season since Tim Hudson in 2010.
For Keuchel, much like Hudson and Bronson Arroyo, is a sinker/slider soft thrower whose fastball m.p.h. tops out in the high-80s, low-90s, that will be the key to his success long-term — continuing to force hitters into bad contact and consequent dribblers.
Making things easier on him this season will be baseball’s expanding strike zone, which forces batters to swing at the pitches he’s already best-situated to throw — ones near a batter’s knees and out of the normal strike zone.
But Keuchel, unlike a strikeout pitcher (Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies) or fly ball pitcher (Jered Weaver of the Los Angeles Angels) a doesn’t control his own destiny.
He needs the help of his defense.
Take A.J. Burnett last season with the Phillies.
Despite a two-year resurgence with the Pittsburgh Pirates with a game much like Keuchel’s, contingent on creating grounders and relying on the gloves behind him, his effectiveness dwindled as Philadelphia’s defense was unable to support him. After ERAs of 3.51 and 3.30 in 2012 and 2013 with Pittsburgh’s sure-handed fielders, Burnett was lit up for a 4.59 earned runs average.
Second baseman Jose Altuve should be a sure thing in this respect. Jed Lowrie, who was signed this offseason for three years and $23 million, should be, if nothing else, average at shortstop. Chris Carter is solid for a first baseman. The question marks then will be Astros third basemen, starting with Luis Valbuena. Less important for Keuchel will be Evan Gattis, who is most likely to play either catcher or left field, if he plays at all — he’s DH’ing Monday, and Colby Rasmus, as left fielders aren’t the first line of defense for ground balls.
Matt Hammond is the producer and