Breaking down the nature of Dallas Keuchel's contact

BY foxsports • November 19, 2015

By August Fagerstrom

Dallas Keuchel won a Cy Young last night, becoming the second pitcher in as many seasons to complete the two-year transition of “some guy with a 5.15 ERA” to “American League Cy Young Award winner.” Keuchel’s career turnaround, as was Corey Kluber‘s, is absolutely remarkable, though the similarities between the two elite hurlers mostly ends there.

Kluber, of course, is a righty, while Keuchel throws left-handed. You think of the way Kluber pitches, and you think of all the strikeouts. You think of the way Keuchel pitches, and you think of all the ground balls. Granted, Kluber gets his grounders, and Keuchel started getting his whiffs this year, too, but their primary methods of success lie on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Despite what FIP may lead you to believe, contact management is a real skill that certain pitchers have. Sure, the ability to miss bats entirely is a more reliable skill, and if you had to take one over the other you’d take the whiffs over the weak contact. But some pitchers miss bats, and some pitchers miss barrels. The best pitchers in the world do both, and that’s how Dallas Keuchel got to where he is today.

The whiffs are easy to see. The pitcher throws the amazing curveball and the batter tries to hit it but doesn’t. That’s a whiff. Do that a bunch of times and you have a bunch of whiffs. Soft contact isn’t quite obvious. I mean, we can see it when it happens, but how? Why did the ball come off the bat like that? I know this is something people struggle with, grasping what it is exactly that a pitcher does to consistently generate weak contact. I’ve seen it asked in chats, live blogs, on Twitter and in comment sections. Understandably so. There’s only one kind of whiff. There’s like a million different ways the ball can come off the bat.

That being said, there’s plenty of ways we can examine the nature of Keuchel’s contact management game. For now, we’ll stick to one.

 Keuchel’s method is grounders, so we’ll focus on those. Nearly two-thirds of the balls in play against Keuchel this year were on the ground, the second-highest rate in baseball this year and one of the highest rates by a qualified starter in the last decade. Generating tons of ground balls is a good thing, but we should understand that even with just grounders, there can be a good and a bad. For instance, the bad: Chris Tillman. Tillman started getting his grounders this year, but were they good grounders? Hard ground balls give fielders less time to range, and the balls they do get to become harder plays.

Chris Tillman, grounders

    Dallas Keuchel, grounders

      Between Keuchel and Tillman, a difference of 7mph in average batted ball velocity on ground balls exists. Between Keuchel and Tillman, a difference of 76 points in batting average on ground balls exists. Keuchel gets significantly more grounders than Tillman, but Keuchel also gets significantly better grounders.

      So how does one pitch to soft contact? Again, plenty of ways. Late movement, keeping hitters off balance by changing eye levels, efficient sequencing that comes as a result of a good game-calling catcher or a smart pitcher who can read batters swings or some combination of the two, and, as always, being able to consistently hit your spot. In the end, it always comes down to command, and Keuchel is among the best in that regard.

      Earlier this week, I spoke with Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball about Trevor Bauer, and Boddy invoked the phrase “dominant-strategy attack.” In other words, a pitcher figuring out where he can best command each pitch, and then consistently attacking with that pitch in that spot. Essentially, ensuring that you’re always throwing the best version of each pitch you have.

      With that in mind, consider Dallas Keuchel’s changeup this year:

      Dallas Keuchel(2)

      That is a truly remarkable image. Keuchel threw 497 changeups this season, and 437 of them were on one half of the plate. Keuchel knows where he best commands his changeup, so it doesn’t matter whether a lefty or a righty is batting, he’s going to throw the best version of his pitch every time. Outside edge off the end of the bat against righties, inside edge on the hands against lefties.

      The two-seamer, Keuchel’s primary pitch, works the same way. So it’s no surprise, then, to see the pitch locations of all Keuchel’s grounders this year:

      Dallas Keuchel

      Keuchel likes to work the slider to the other half of the plate, so you see some activity there, too, but more than two-thirds of Keuchel’s grounders this year came on two-seamers and changeups to that same first-base side corner of the plate.

      So that’s how Keuchel pitches and how he gets his grounders, but I want to take this one step further. First, it would be nice to see this in action, but there’s also something else I’ve been thinking about. You know how Keuchel is a great fielder? He leads all pitchers in Defensive Runs Saved the past two years with nearly a 10-run gap between him and second place. Surely, Keuchel is a great athlete who can field his position well, making the most of his fielding opportunities. But how much of that just comes down to fielding opportunities? We know Keuchel gets a lot of ground balls, and we know he gets weak ground balls. How much weaker can a ground ball get than a tapper in front of the mound?

      Using the Play Index at Baseball-Reference, we can sort of figure this out. First, we can filter for non-bunt ground balls, then we can filter for location. For location, we can select “1” (pitcher), “2” (catcher), “13” (between pitcher and first base), “15” (between pitcher and third base), “25” and “23.” It’s probably not perfect, but it serves as a nice little proxy for “ground balls that don’t travel much further than the mound,” AKA, the weakest of all weak ground balls. The leaderboard for this is not surprising.

      Ground balls hit in front of the mound, 2015

        By far, Keuchel’s penchant for weak contact generated him the most fielding opportunities, and he capitalized on them by going the whole year without making a single throwing error, while committing just one fielding error.

        By quickly comparing Keuchel’s ground ball heatmaps to those of his Cy Young runner-ups, you can see the disparity in how many weak tappers he generates compared to his peers:

        ThreeGBs

        See all that red on the pitcher’s mound? That’s not there for Price and Gray, and Gray is one of the most extreme ground ball pitchers in the league.

        To tie this all together, a couple examples of Keuchel perfectly spotting the first-base side two-seamer on the edge to a righty, getting a weak tapper back to the mound:

        A couple examples of Keuchel perfectly spotting the first-base sidechangeup on the edge to a righty, getting a weak tapper back to the mound:

        And the locations of the ball on the bat, at the point of contact:

        FourContacts

        All off the very end of the bat, all hit right back to the mound for an easy out.

        This is how Dallas Keuchel gets his weak grounders. This is how Keuchel was able to suppress the production of opposite-handed hitters better than any lefty in the league this year not named Clayton Kershaw. This is how Keuchel became a Cy Young Award winner. Of course, there’s more to Keuchel’s craft than just this; he’s truly an artist on the mound. But to understand how a pitcher like Keuchel works, you’ve got to do it in parts. This just happens to be the biggest part.

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