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Houston Astros Season Preview: Dallas Keuchel

Lefty Starter Dallas Keuchel: Sinkerballer with upside or organizational depth?

Rick Yeatts

Today we take a look at Dallas Keuchel, Astros lefty starting pitcher. Drafted out of the University of Arkansas in the 7th round of the 2009 draft, Keuchel made it all the way to the parent club in June of 2012, accumulating 16 starts on the way to a 3-8 / 5.27 record for the Astros in 2012. What might the future hold for this sinkerballing lefty?

Keuchel , a 25 year old listed at 6' 4" 200 lbs., was assigned to the New York Penn League in 2009 after the draft, accumulating 10 starts. He was very successful, primarily because of a 44K/9BB rate in 56.2 IP, leading to a 2.70 ERA. The strikeout to walk ratio has proven to be very predictive of Keuchel's fate along the way up the system, as would be expected from a sinkerballer who relies upon groundballs to succeed.

DK was assigned to Lancaster in High A to begin the 2010 season where he made 18 starts on the way to a 5-8 3.36 record. He gave up 129 hits in 120 IP, and posted a K/BB of 97/25 with a 64% Groundball rate. These numbers led to a promotion mid-season to AA Corpus where in 53 IP, he gave up 59 hits. His K/BB remained decent at 36/11 but his groundball rate fell to 52%, leading to an increased ERA of 4.69 (although the FIP remained strong at 2.99).

Keuchel began the 2011 season back in Corpus where he continued to pitch well as a 23 year old. 20 starts later, a 9-7 3.17 ERA 76/27 K/BB caused him to be promoted to AAA OKC. The results there were not as good over 7 starts, but for a 23 year old sinkerballer in AAA for the first time, this was not that surprising.

In 2012, he began the year back in OKC, and this time around, he performed much better. 16 starts of 3.90 ERA and a 59% groundball rate showed continued growth, but a decreasing K rate of 50 strikeouts in 92 IP began to suggest he was up against his ceiling, as he was no longer dominating hitters. Nevertheless, when injuries struck the Big Club, Keuchel got the call to the majors, making his Astros debut on June 17 at Texas. His first 3 starts held promise, as he went 1-0 with a 1.35 ERA against Texas, Cleveland and San Diego. A closer look revealed 9 walks and 8 K's in 20 IP, suggesting some smoke and mirrors were perhaps involved in his early success. Sure enough, as the calendar rolled over to July, the wheels fell off the Keuchel train, as he got lit up in 4 July starts, and was mediocre at best in 5 August starts. September was better as he strung together 3 good starts, but then ended his season getting clobbered by Corey Hart and the Milwaukee Selig's in his last start.

The 2012 numbers in 85 innings for the Astros are not pretty. Keuchel finished 3-8, with a 5.27 ERA and a 5.78 FIP. He gave up 14 bombs in those 85 innings, an unusually high number for a presumed sinkerballer type pitcher. His command left him as well. After posting generally good BB rates in the minors, DK walked 39 hitters in those 85 IP , while only striking out 38. His groundball rate fell to 54% as well.

The combination of increased walks, a terrible k/9 rate (4.0!), and lots of balls flying out of the park were all signs that Keuchel was overmatched in the majors at the age of 24. Sure enough, Spring Grapefruit results were not any better, leading to his being reassigned to minor league camp on March 17. It is assumed that he will again begin the year in AAA OKC, but with the growing number of available, up and coming starting pitchers resulting from the numerous trades Jeff Luhnow has pulled off in the past 18 months, that presumption is tenuous. Numerous other candidates for AAA starts including Jordan Lyles, Jarred Cosart, John Ely, Rudy Owens and Asher Wojo will make 2013 a crucial year for Dallas Keuchel, as it will go a long ways towards determining if he has a future with the big league club, or is merely organizational depth, destined to be passed up by the increasing numbers of minor league arms on the way.