At different points in his short career, Dallas Keuchel has thrown a slurve and a spike curve. Due to ineffectiveness and injury, the Houston Astros left-hander had to step down his usage of either breaking ball. But they’ll be back.
The first breaking ball Keuchel ever threw was a slurve back in high school. But when he got to college, pitching coach Dave Jorn showed him a three-finger change up grip. In what is almost a pitchfork style grip, Keuchel’s thumb doesn’t touch the ball. Perhaps it’s that loose grip that’s given him the third-largest horizontal movement on his change among lefty starters in the game.
The pitchfork grip that launched a career.
Along with his low-90s sinker, that change gave him enough weapons to get by without using his breaking pitch much in college.
That arsenal served him well, but he felt he needed a breaking pitch. He had "lost feel for the slurve" he used to have while in high school and so he "came up with a couple spike grips." One won out, and it helped him advance through the minor leagues. It was good enough.
The spike curve that was good enough for a while.
But then Keuchel hit the major leagues. Midway through his second attempt at the league, he still had a career ERA over five. "The curveball wasn’t working for me," Keuchel admitted, "and I figured I wanted to make a career out of this."
(Take a look at his big looping curve ball from 2013 here.)
He was right — the average curve gets 11 percent whiffs and 49 percent ground balls, and his got 5 percent and 48 percent respectively.
So after the season, he re-assessed. "I just kind of took a look back after the season, there were good times, a couple good outings in a row, and then a bad outing." With consistency in mind, the first thing that Keuchel thought of, other than fastball command, was that curve ball.
The slider that fueled a breakout.
He wasn’t getting the feel out in front on the spike curve, so he tightened it up, and went back to his old grip. "I figured out a nice little slurve," Keuchel said. That slurve has netted him 22 percent whiffs this year — the average slider gets 15 percent, so "nice" and "little" might be underselling it a bit. That consistency he was looking for is evident too. The ball rate on his slider is 38 percent compared to the 48 percent he saw with the curve.
(Take a look at his different, more sweeping breaking ball here.)
Everything was humming along with his new pitching mix this year, and he was one of the year’s great breakout stories. But then something happened in his wrist.
"It was kind of like a mini-golf ball," Keuchel said of the fluid that had built up there. But once the doctor was summoned, they assured him nothing was wrong, it was just fluid.
But it did affect his breaking ball. "I didn’t really have a good feel for the slider," Keuchel said of the first few starts after the injury.
Thanks to BrooksBaseball, we can see his pitching mix graphically. Check out the red line that represents his slider, and where it drops off a cliff temporarily. That game against Tampa is where he first felt the injury.
"It was going to take me a few starts to get back to the feel that I had before," Keuchel said, and he’s not worried. "I know it’s going to come back, it’s just a matter of getting the feel back."
A lot of what Dallas Keuchel does is based on command of the sinker and the change, and that command also took a leap forward this year.
"My stuff is as good as anybody else’s and even though I don’t throw that hard, I can command the baseball," he said. "A lot of it had to do with my first opening day this year, when I got into the starting rotation out of spring training," Keuchel said. "A lot of the worrying went by the wayside."
That confidence, plus a new breaking ball, has led to the breakout. Even if it’s taken a couple weeks off, the slider will be back. It’s been gone before, and returned.
Will the spike curve ever be back? Maybe.
"I’ve thought about doing an eephus curveball, I threw it a little last year," Keuchel admitted with a smile.
The slowest curve that Keuchel has thrown. Eephus?