Keuchel staying the course through struggles

June 22nd, 2018

HOUSTON -- is asked about keeping his sanity as he deals with a lack of success when, in large part, he's doing the things he's supposed to do.

"I play a lot of video games," he said. "Kind of de-stress myself."

He's not joking. Fortnite for a thousand, Alex. As Keuchel prepared for a Friday start against the Royals at Minute Maid Park, the Astros left-hander reflected on a stretch in which he may be one of baseball's unluckiest pitchers.

Yes, he has lacked some of the pinpoint control and crispness of, say, his 2015 Cy Young season. But his 4-8 record and 4.15 ERA do not completely reflect a 4-8 performance.

Let's let him talk it out.

"When you break it down, you don't want to jump to any conclusions," he said. "Just kind of cycling back through in your mind the game, different at-bats, different pitches. You remember the hard-hit ones, the ones you're supposed to give up.

"One person saying one thing, one person saying another thing. You know what you were doing was the right thing, the right pitches. It just didn't go your way. It's frustrating for sure, but you've just got to move on."

He hopes he hit rock bottom June 10 in Arlington when he allowed 13 hits and five earned runs in 4 1/3 innings against the Rangers. Here's what made it so bizarre: Of the 13 hits, just three of them qualified as "hard hit," according to Statcast™.

More from Statcast™: Keuchel's hard-hit rate in the game was just 17.4 percent -- four of 23 batted balls were hit 95+ mph. That was his lowest rate of the season and the 11th-lowest of any pitcher this season in a game with at least 20 total batted balls.

The Rangers batted .520 (13-for-25) against Keuchel that day. However, based on launch angle and contact, Statcast™ pegged his expected batting average at .280.

That 240-point gap is the largest of the season out of close to 1,700 pitcher starts with at least 20 batters faced.

"Yeah, I counted three hard-hit balls," Keuchel said. "I'm sitting there wondering even more what I could have done to combat some of the shift hits, some of the weak contact [hits]. I chalked it up to I couldn't have done anything differently."

Only it's not that easy.

"Like I said in Arlington, I know what 3-8 feels like, because I've been there before," he said. "But I wasn't in the same position I am now."

Keuchel gathered himself nicely six days later, and allowed no earned runs in six innings in Kansas City. That start may have been an important breakthrough, not as much because of the results, but because Keuchel welcomed back an old and dear friend -- his slider.

He threw 31 of them against the Royals, his high in a game this season, and nearly twice the number he threw against the Rangers. He got seven of his 11 swings and misses on it and hopes that was a return to normalcy.

"That's the pitch that's been eluding me for quite some time," he said. "It's been inconsistent. But on Saturday, it was a whole different story."

After that game in Arlington, opposing hitters had a .433 slugging percentage against him. Statcast™ had his expected slugging percentage at .404. Of 125 pitchers who have faced at least 200 batters this season, that 29-point gap was the 12th-highest.

Wait, there's more. His 55.6 percent ground-ball rate is tops in the American League. But his 88 mph average exit velocity is the highest of his career. It was 85.4 mph during his 2015 Cy Young season and 87.8 mph in 2016, when he attempted to pitch through injuries.

None of this would matter if he hadn't struggled a bit -- by his own high standards -- the last month. He had a 3.10 ERA (and only three wins) after nine starts. Then came five starts in which his ERA was 7.33.

His struggles are magnified because he's part of baseball's best rotation -- 2.91 as a staff entering Thursday -- with (1.60), (2.59) and Charlie Morton (2.74) off to dazzling starts.

"I think there's a competitiveness for sure," he said. "But everybody's different, and this is a very long season. I've been on the opposite side where you kind of stress about doing well and maintaining what you're doing. Now I'm on the flip side, and it's like, 'Okay, I feel good, but I'm not performing as well to the normal baseball fan as they've seen me perform.'

"There's less stress now for me because I know the load is not on myself to perform and carry this team. That's one of the greatest feelings, and I guess a valuable learning tool that we got four other starters that are pretty damn good. It's just my start every fifth day, and I don't have to carry the load for five out of five days. That takes an extra load off my shoulders."

Here's a sidebar to the whole thing: He can be a free agent after this season, and he understands that his seventh season with the Astros could be his last.

"As a human being, I think about it every so often," he said. "It's not something I try to think about. But it creeps in the back of your mind. What's life going to be like after this year? I've spent the last seven years here. You show up to the ballpark. You do the same things. We're creatures of habit, so for me, that creeps into my mind. Whatever happens, happens, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it."

For now, though, he has more pressing matters with his own performance and a potential third trip to the postseason in four seasons on the horizon.