Nobody talked about Dallas Keuchel entering the 2015 season. Who will be the next player to go from no-name to star?
Prior to 2014, Dallas Keuchel was generally an ineffective pitcher. He made 16 starts in his 2012 debut season, producing an ERA and FIP over 5.00. 2013 came, and Keuchel was viewed as a hybrid long-reliever, meant to shuttle back and forth from the Minors. Dealing with injuries and ineffective starting pitching, the wallowing Astros again inserted Keuchel into the starting rotation and he still struggled, posting an ERA over 5.00, but a more promising 4.25 FIP and 3.58 xFIP. After two seasons in the Majors, this year’s Cy Young winner had only notched a 0.6 combined WAR.
Then came 2014. Keuchel’s already extreme groundball rate increased eight percentage points between 2013 and ‘14, and more importantly, he cut his HR/FB rate in half. He began to better sequence his pitches to generate more strikeouts and induce weak contact. The result: a sub-3.00 ERA for the first time in his career. He also threw over 200 innings for the first time, setting him up for what would be a magical 2015 season.
In 2015, Keuchel increased his sinker usage to over 50%, and while its effectiveness slightly decreased (0.225 BAA in 2014 vs. 0.233 BAA in 2015), it improved the outcomes of his other pitches:
His slider (to righties) and changeup (to lefties) became effective pitches in all counts, helping Keuchel notch a career-high 23.7 K%, good for fourth best in the American League. That, along with his well-documented success at home (a historic 15-0 record with a 1.46 ERA and 0.89 WHIP at Minute Maid Park), lead to him receiving the 2015 AL Cy Young Award. It’s incredible to think that just two seasons prior, Keuchel was barely on a Major League roster as a long reliever. It’s this transition from irrelevance to dominance that makes his story so intriguing.
But what if I told you there’s another pitcher sitting in the National League with similar numbers to Keuchel that nobody is talking about? Let’s compare some numbers and you can tell me if you see the resemblance (spoiler alert: don’t scroll too far down or you’ll ruin the game).
First their career numbers:
Obviously Kuechel’s line includes those sub-par numbers from 2012 and 2013, but the argument is still here. Both are groundball pitchers with average strikeout and walk rates. Again, we’re looking for the next 2015-version of Keuchel, so let’s just compare these two players’ 2015 numbers:
Our mystery player missed a few starts to injury, but otherwise he was nearly as dominant as Keuchel. He had similar peripheral run prevention numbers, while limiting walks and living predominantly on the groundball.
So who is this pitcher that has great rate stats, yet is virtually an unknown in the public eye? The St. Louis Cardinals just picked up his $11.5 M option for 2016. Yes, I’m talking about Jaime Garcia.
Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Like Keuchel, Garcia lives and dies by the groundball. Both pitchers generate grounders alongside their sliders, changeups, and fourseam fastballs. Garcia’s GB% has increased when throwing his fastball each of the last five seasons, and if he qualified he would have finished with the fourth highest GB% in baseball in 2015.
“If he qualified” is the key statement there, though. Since making his debut in 2008, he has pitched over 150 innings just twice, and the last time was in 2011. Garcia’s first major injury came in 2008 when he needed Tommy John surgery. He then struggled with shoulder discomfort in 2012, leading to a prolonged stint on the disabled list. In 2013, he went back under the knife to repair partial tears in his labrum and rotator cuff, and a year later, Garcia again had season-ending thoracic outlet surgery.
He returned in May at full capacity, and the hurler turned in an incredibly impressive season for a 100-win Cardinals team. In just 130 innings, Garcia provided 2.8 WAR which would have ranked 11th in the National League if prorated to 200 innings (4.3 WAR).
The one strength that truly differentiates Keuchel from Garcia is a put-away pitch. Keuchel relies on his slider, which sports a .106 BAA and gets whiffs on 42.17% of swings, alongside his changeup, with has a .196 BAA and gets swings and misses 36.62% of the time. Garcia has a similarly effective slider and changeup —.198/.212 BAA and 32.84%/35.61% whiffs per swing respectively — but relies on them too exclusively in two-strike counts.
Let’s compare the two pitchers’ two-strike approach side-by-side:
As a groundball pitcher, the sinker is possibly your biggest weapon. With two strikes, Keuchel throws his sinker over a third of the time. For Garcia, his slider becomes his main weapon, mostly at the expense of his sinker. The difference is significant:
The above table shows how much the pitchers deviate from their overall approach when they get to two strikes. Both pitchers reduce their sinker and fastball usage, but that’s to be expected, as most pitchers try to deceive batters with breaking pitches to get that third strike. The difference of course is the volume. Garcia drops his sinker usage 10.73% in favor of increasing his slider 22.07%. Keuchel also throws his sinker less (7.28%) while displaying an uptick in slider usage (14.22%), but not to the same degree as Garcia.
Keeping the sinker as his primary weapon allows Keuchel’s other pitches to remain effective in all other situations. Garcia loses what makes him an effective pitcher by relying heavily on his slider. Now his slider is an incredibly effective pitch — last year opponents hit just .198 against it and never higher than .220 in his career — but by increasing his sinker usage on two strikes, he can turn both his changeup and slider into more consistent strikeout pitches.
Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Ultimately, that $11.5 M the Cardinals are paying Garcia could look like a steal this time next year. Garcia has already shown the skills to be a really effective pitcher when healthy. Making a simple adjustment to his sequencing can separate Garcia from being just another pitcher in the Cardinals’ factory line of quality pitching and turn him into a star. At only 29 years old and with just two years remaining on his current contract (the recently picked up option and another team option for 2017), Garcia could be due another multi-year extension, and who knows, maybe some end-of-season hardware with it.
*All season statistics are courtesy of fangraphs.com, and pitch usage and outcomes stats come from Brooks Baseball.
CORRECT!Your overall SQ:
Your MLB SQ:
WRONG!The answer was: Answer more MLB questions »