Entering the season, many considered the Astros a near championship contender with one glaring weakness; elite front of the rotation pitching. The pressure was there for GM Jeff Luhnow to acquire a bonafide elite pitcher, as options like Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Chris Archer were long dangled in trade rumors throughout the offseason.
Yet the Astros elected to take a wait and see approach with their question mark filled rotation, and so far it has worked out well for the front office. The rotation has looked solid all the way through, but nobody has been as impressive as Dallas Keuchel.
Through five dominant starts, Keuchel has not just looked like an improved version of his 2016 self; he has pitched like the best pitcher in baseball. In 44.2 innings of work, Keuchel has given up just six runs, pitched a complete game, and earned an impressive 5-0 record.
Many would say he is finally back to his Cy Young form of 2015, yet he is attacking the opposing batter in different ways than he ever has.
This season, Dallas Keuchel is hitting the zone just 35.8% of the time, a career low (he hit the zone 40% of the time in 2014 and 37.6% of the time in 2015, his two best seasons) a lower rate than any other pitcher in baseball. He is also hitting the zone consistently lower than he ever has, good for second lowest average pitch in the league. He has relentlessly baited hitters to swing at low, out of the zone pitches.
The results have been fantastic. Keuchel's strategy has netted him a career and league high ground-ball rate, and he has induced one of the highest soft contact rates and lowest high contact rates in the MLB. He is getting batters to swing at low pitches, which have in turn led to soft grounders and easy outs for the Astros defense.
Keuchel's current level of production is not completely sustainable; he won't go through a full season with a .188 BABIP or a 1.22 ERA. Yet I think he can pitch a little better than his peripherals (3.75 FIP, 3.34 xFIP, 3.41 SIERA) and most projection models suggest.
Keuchel has not upped his strikeout rate (his 6.57 K/9 is tied with a career low) and his dropped velocity has not picked up from last year, yet Keuchel is still working through lineup after lineup. How is he doing it? Pin-point control and consistently low pitch placement.
Conventional sabermetric wisdom says that pitchers have little control over what happens to the ball once a batter hits it, yet Luhnow and his team have a penchant for cutting-edge analytical approaches to the game of baseball.
The only pitcher that throws low in the zone as consistently as Dallas Keuchel is Houston's own Luke Gregerson, and as a team the Astros have the second highest opponent soft-contact percentage and sixth lowest hard-contact percentage.
Maybe Keuchel and the rest of the Astros pitching staff have perfected a unique way to dominate batters without using killer velocity or nasty breaking balls; pitch it low, and be as precise as humanly possible.
Dallas Keuchel was one of the biggest question marks entering the 2017 season for the Astros, and so far he has proved all of his doubters wrong. A healthy rotation of Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Charlie Morton, Colin McHugh (if he gets back), and Joe Musgrove would not just be a solid rotation; it has already proven to be one of the league's best.
Coupled with a stacked bullpen, the Astros may have just as much success preventing runs as they do scoring runs. So far in 2017, the Astros have fed off momentum from Keuchel's strong work, leading us to believe that when Dallas Keuchel goes, the Astros go.