When preparing for a new season, fantasy baseball enthusiasts are always wanting to know who is going to be the next big breakout player. Drafting or picking up a player on waivers for his breakout season gives fantasy owners a feeling of superiority, a feeling of omniscience in some sense. Whether that feeling is justified or not is another question. But even if your team comes in last place, you can take ownership that you “knew” Jose Bautista would bust out for 54 HR, or that your hunch that R.A. Dickey would knuckle his way into a Cy Young Award panned out. So at The Backwards K, there is a series of posts titled “This Year’s…” where I will tell you who I think this year’s version of a 2014 breakout player will be, providing some background and analysis.Embed from Getty Images
Before the 2014 season, you have to go to back to 2010 to find a Houston Astros starting pitcher that was worth owning in fantasy leagues. That pitcher was Brett Myers who went 14-8 with a 3.14 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 180 K in 223.2 IP. But even then, did you really want to own a player who uses his wife as a punching bag and who once also ignorantly and insensitively called a reporter the “R-word.” (Spread the word to end the word HERE!) Something strange happened in 2014 though, as not only one Astros starting pitcher was beginning to produce positive results, but two of them were! Those pitchers were Dallas Keuchel and Colin McHugh. The fantasy world seemed affected by the recency bias toward the Astros as an awful team over the past few seasons, and more specifically the Astros pitchers, so many fantasy owners shied away from touching them when they were producing early on, in fear of them turning back into big ol’ pumpkins. But there of course were the fantasy owners who were bold enough, and perhaps knowledgeable enough, to pick up Keuchel and/or McHugh off waivers. For now, let’s focus on the southpaw Keuchel and see how he was able to put together a breakout 2014 season.
Keuchel, a 7th round pick out of the University of Arkansas by the Astros in 2009, did not put up any numbers that “wowed” anyone at the collegiate level, as his personal best season at Arkansas consisted of a 3.92 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 5.75 K/9. Similarly, in his Minor League career, he compiled a 3.74 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 5.90 K/9. And then in his 1 and ½ seasons in the Majors prior to 2014, he was a pitcher that looked absolutely lost, as he was literally one of the worst pitchers in the league during that timeframe. Out of pitchers with a minimum of 200 IP from 2012-13, Keuchel had the third highest ERA at 5.20 and the highest WHIP at 1.54. Part of the ugly stat line could be attributed to some poor luck as his xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching mark) during that time was 4.17, which was over a full run lower than his actual ERA, suggesting his defense was doing him no favors. However, there was still no denying that Keuchel had a lot of work to do to become anything more than an eventual mop-up man in the Majors.
A part of Keuchel’s game that was a positive aspect in his time in the Minors but was not prevalent at all during his first 1 and ½ years in the Majors was his great control. In the Minors his walk rate was well below average at 1.90 BB/9, but in 2012 with the Astros it ballooned to 4.11 BB/9. Perhaps that 2012 mark can be attributed to the rookie jitters though, as Keuchel was able to trim that to 3.05 BB/9 in his sophomore season in 2013. Even so, that was still a far cry from his Mark Buehrle-esque type of control that he had in the Minors. But in 2014 things started clicking for Keuchel, and he was getting ahead in the count much more often, as his first pitch strike % increased from 62.9% in 2013 to 65.4% in 2014. Working ahead in the count is obviously a lot more comfortable for pitchers, and it should lead to fewer walks issued. In Keuchel’s case, it led to a lot fewer walks as his 2014 walk rate was very pretty at 2.16 BB/9. Another factor in Keuchel’s breakout was the fact that he was pounding the bottom of the zone, as evidenced in this great article written by Scott Strandberg at Fangraphs. Keuchel always was a groundball pitcher, but by pounding the bottom of the zone even harder, he took his groundball inducing ways to a whole new level. At 63.5%, Keuchel easily led the Majors in groundball rate. Groundballs often turn into easy outs, and if the ball is being hit on the ground a lot that means the ball is not leaving the park for 3-run dingers. So as you can see, Keuchel’s formula to success in his age 26 season was improved control and inducing a ton of groundballs, which led him to a season of 12 W-9 L, 2.93 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 6.57 K/9, and 2.16 BB/9 in 200 IP.