Matt Jones is the online sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Newspapers.
Keuchel enjoying breakout season
Houston Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel throws against the Minnesota Twins in the first inning of a baseball game, Friday, June 6, 2014, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
FAYETTEVILLE Dallas Keuchel still isn't a household name.
The best pitcher on the American League's second-worst team entering the weekend, Keuchel hasn't had many chances to endear himself to the causal observer outside of an occasional blurb on Baseball Tonight.
But those around the game are taking note of the 26-year-old's season with the Astros. He leads the American League in complete games and came within one out of recording another. His WHIP - or walks and hits per inning - is fourth-lowest in the league.
Keuchel is among the league leaders in ERA (2.50) after entering the season with a career ERA of 5.15. As the baseball season nears its midpoint, the left-hander is in the conversation for the All-Star Game and has even been listed as a dark horse candidate for the Cy Young Award.
"I think my preparation this year has been a big key for me," Keuchel said. "Making my first opening day roster was tremendous and awesome. The necessary work I put in before I start makes it possible for me to do what I do on the mound. Without that I think I wouldn't be in the position I'm in."
Keuchel's season to this point has exceeded expectations. With a fastball that sits in the low 90s, he doesn't overpower teams with velocity, instead subscribing to the age-old theory of filling up the strike zone.
The Broken Arrow, Okla., native has found success by being accurate. He has issued only 17 walks in 82 2/3 innings and his slider has a 52 percent swinging strike rate, which is tops of any pitch for any pitcher in baseball. Keuchel also leads MLB in ground ball percentage.
"One of Dallas' greatest strengths is he makes a great number of his pitches look like strikes out of his hand because of the way he drives the ball," Houston pitch coach Brent Strom told the Houston Chronicle last month. "He drives the ball in a straight line. He doesn't let things get away from him. Everything he throws comes out of his hand somewhat in the confines of the strike zone, and then the ball works off of that. … The ultimate pitcher is the one who needs to throw no strikes but people chase."
It's tough for Keuchel to pinpoint what exactly has made him so successful in his third year. One change he made was to modify his delivery in spring training.
Likely the biggest change, though, has been his mental makeup. Keuchel not only made the opening day roster, but also the team's starting rotation before the season. He's 7-3 in 12 starts this season, averaging close to seven innings pitched per outing, and is 6-0 in road starts.
"I'm over the nervousness of just staying here," Keuchel said. "…The last two years I've been up and down (to the minors) a couple of times and that puts a lot of stress on anybody going from city to city. Not knowing where you're going to be in a couple of weeks is very stressful on your professional life. I've pushed that aside and said I was going to do my best to perform each day and whatever happens, happens."
Keuchel has already been named the AL's pitcher of the week and player of the week this season. But he shrugs off his accomplishments in the same team-first manner he exuded at Arkansas, where he helped the lead the Razorbacks to the College World Series in 2009.
"I think my success so far has been a culmination of the team getting better as a whole," Keuchel said. "When you see a team getting more experience like ours, you see guys start to settle in and relax, and have fun."
Keuchel, an eight round draft pick, is one of three pitchers from Arkansas' 2009 team to make the major league. Drew Smyly is in his third season with the Tigers and Mike Bolsinger started four games for the Diamondbacks earlier this year after being called up because of an injury.
"When Bolsinger made his debut I talked to him," Keuchel said. "There are more guys from that team going to make the big leagues and when that time comes I'll talk to them, too. It's definitely something special when you have old teammates from college see their dreams come true.
"That was by far the most talented team I've ever played on."
Keuchel and Smyly started a game against each other in Detroit last month, marking only the third time two former Arkansas pitchers started the same MLB game. Keuchel won the contest and said he was happy both were able to represent the Razorbacks on a national stage. Game broadcasts and highlight shows repeatedly alluded to the left-handers being roommates while at Arkansas.
"It was weird, but it was very cool and something I'll never forget," Keuchel said. "It was definitely something special.
"I knew it was getting kind of big when Jeff Long tweeted at us. Arkansas baseball has the best fans anywhere, so I knew it would get some publicity."
The publicity didn't end with that outing. He followed up his 8 2/3-inning performance at Comerica Park with consecutive complete games, and had six shutout innings in his last outing against the Twins on Friday.
"I'm very confident with what I can do on a nightly basis with the baseball," he said. "If I keep commanding the baseball and putting the necessary work in and trying to get better each day, I think I have a good shot at staying up here for a little while."