Following the Astros' 3-0 Wild Card win against the Yankees behind another dominant Dallas Keuchel outing, it wasn't difficult to envision the same matchup looming for Opening day 2016. Even amidst the celebrations of clinching a spot in the ALDS, you knew the Astros had an excellent chance to shut down the Yankees once more on April 4, 2016.
That day is here, and it marks the fourth start in the span of a year that Dallas Keuchel will start against the New York Yankees, a team he blew away last season. Keuchel tossed a six-hit shutout in the first start at home in late June, followed by a nine strikeout outing in seven innings against in the Bronx in August, a game in which the Astros won 15-1. All of this led up to another dominating outing in the Wild Card game, when Keuchel forced the Yankees into weak contact throughout the night and eight strikeouts with impeccable command of the strike zone. So what's behind Keuchel's success against the Yankees from last season?
First, raw numbers- Keuchel threw 22 scoreless innings against the Bombers last season, including 28 strikeouts, just two walks allowed (14/1 K:BB ratio). The Yanks recorded just 12 hits off Keuchel in those innings, adding up to three uber-important wins for the Astros. Based on pitch data below, Keuchel's success can be attributed to similar execution of pitch selection and location of what made him the A.L. Cy Young in 2015.
Keuchel's pitch locations on swinging and called strikes against the Yankees in his three starts last season are below. The first image is Keuchel's whiffs against Yankee hitters. It's pretty run-of-the-mill Keuchel; he divided his off speed pitches across two halves of the plate, getting swings and misses on his changeup and slider outside of the zone.
The image below represents Keuchel's called strikes against Yankee hitters, which detail just how powerful his command and pitch location can be. However, the called strikes are missing one factor that are would seem commonplace in a Keuchel start. Like his bearded, basketball-playing counterpart and fellow Houstonian, Keuchel is somewhat notorious for getting questionable calls in his favor. Though Keuchel probably doesn't get as much help from the home plate umpire as James Harden receives from officials to constantly reach the foul line, Keuchel is able to use his command with an occasionally shaky umpire's calls in his favor. So does Keuchel get help from a home plate ump more than other pitchers?
In maybe the best isolated three-start stretch of the season, Keuchel instead worked with a pretty consistent strike zone to dominate the Yankees. As you can see above, only three or four pitches that were called strikes missed the zone entirely. In a data sample of about 291 pitches, that's a pretty good track record for home plate umpires on those three nights, and supports the idea that Keuchel didn't shut down the Yankees because of punchout-happy umpires to benefit his zone.
Finally, Keuchel set up at-bats with certain hitters that reflected his overall strategy to the Yankees. First is his appearances against Alex Rodriguez, who's hit only .143 against Keuchel of his career. Most of the panels below are pretty useless, but the swinging strike window (lower right) and called strike window (middle top) are parallel to Keuchel's overall success. He painted the corners of the zone with changeups and threw sliders to get swings, and got some generous calls with his fastball. Halfway joking here, but maybe certain umpires were less favorable to A-Rod on the field by the looks of the the low called strikes that Keuchel received.
One current Yankee who's had a measure of success against Keuchel is old friend Carlos Beltran. In nine career at-bat Beltran carries a homer, another extra base hit, and a .444 average into today's game. The first two windows up top deserve our attention in this graphic below. Beltran did a great job of laying off Keuchel's outside offerings. As a switch-hitter, Beltran is hitting right-handed against Dallas, and he's didn't bite on those fastballs away.
Additionally, Keuchel threw zero changeups and only a handful of sliders against Beltran last season and only generated a single whiff. For a pitcher so dependent offspeed stuff, it's interesting that Keuchel decided to forego that effective offering in his matchups with Beltran. Without a look into Beltran's success against certain pitch types, it could be a gameplan decision to not throw that pitch to Beltran, or maybe Keuchel just wanted to attack a hitter falling down the again curve with fastballs.
There was no magic bullet that can explain Keuchel's 2015 success against the Yankees. He's just an outstanding pitcher who changes speeds and is able to leverage pinpoint location for a huge advantage against hitters, which is much of what he did against New York. The samples from A-Rod and Beltran are small, speculative glances into the Astros overall gameplan against those hitters, so it will be interesting to see if those trends show up today. There's also no way to explain Keuchel's success against a single team- maybe he caught much of New York's lineup on cold streaks at the plate, and maybe he was just on those nights. Regardless, I hope this data-driven dive into Keuchel's outings against the Yankees offer a look into how he attacked the Yankee lineup, and will lead to a similar results for the Astros this afternoon.