The return of Dallas

Everything went wrong for Houston’s Dallas Keuchel in 2016. Here he was coming off a Cy Young Award, a fifth-place finish in the MVP balloting, he had led the league in innings, shutouts, WHIP and wins. And suddenly, a new year, and he couldn’t get anybody out.

What seemed obvious to everyone was that Keuchel’s command — such a big part of his 2015 success — had gone astray. There’s a subtle but important difference between command and control. Keuchel’s control was off too — he walked a few more people. But much more to the point, he started getting hit. Opponent batting average jumped 40 points. And, even more troublesome, opponents slugging percentage went up more than 100 points. That’s command. Keuchel was throwing his pitches in places where hitters could tee off.

“I’m putting pressure on myself,” Keuchel admitted. Some of the people around Keuchel speculated that he had so wanted to follow up his Cy Young year with an even better one that, he overcompensated, worked too hard in the offseason, tried to be too perfect when he pitched. That theory is as good as any. Great pitching demands a fragile balance between challenging the hitter and avoiding him. Great pitching requires throwing strikes, but only through those tiny cracks in the zone where hitters are at a disadvantage. It’s tightrope walking over the Grand Canyon across a line of thread.

Dallas Keuchel lost that balance in 2016.

And, yeah, Dallas Keuchel seems to have found that balance again this year.

Look at that chart above. Those are the called strikes in Keuchel’s masterful 117-pitch complete game at Cleveland on Tuesday. There were THIRTY of them, most called strikes for any pitcher this year and the most in Keuchel’s career.

Look at those pitches. Yes, there are five or six over the heart of the plate, we will get back to those. But the vast majority are hidden in the corners, exactly where you want to hide your boats in “Battleship.” Most of the pitches were fastballs — 21 of the 30 either two-seamers or four-seamers. When Dallas Keuchel is pinpointing his fastball, look out.

Also: Fourteen of those 30 called strikes were the first pitch of the at-bat. The Cleveland batters were hitting from down in the count all night long. You could argue that the Tribe should have been more aggressive against Keuchel — taking us back to those few called strikes over the heart of the plate — but the truth is that Keuchel’s first pitches were generally so nasty and so perfect that he got in the hitter’s heads. After a while, they were looking pretty exclusively in the corners, and that’s when Keuchel could slip a hittable pitch by them.

When Dallas Keuchel is right, like he has been so far this year, he’s a maestro on the mound. His fastest pitch of the night was 90 mph. He was throwing his slider and his changeup at about 79. None of this is too intimidating. And yet by mixing up those pitches, painting corners, getting late movement, and giving hitters what they least expected, he held one of the best offensive team in baseball to two solo home runs.

The Astros have now won four of Keuchel’s five starts (the bullpen blew the fifth), his ERA is 1.22, and the league hits .175 against him. Everyone knew the Astros would hit this year, the real question was how that starting rotation would hold up. If Keuchel is Keuchel, it should be just fine.

More of the Thames

One of the sadder parts of baseball’s Steroid Era is that it has left a lingering cynicism. Whenever anyone goes on a nice or surprising run of power hitting, there are those who immediately mouth “Steroids.” Some are even willing to go a step further than mouthing the word.

“The homer hit the other way,” John Lackey said the other day of an Eric Thames homer, “I mean, you don’t see that happen here very often. That’s kind of one of those things that makes you scratch your head.”

He winked as he said “scratch your head.”

“It’s probably a head scratcher,” Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio said on radio, “because nobody knows who this guy is … his body has changed.”

Head-scratcher seems to be the most acceptable phrase to use when suggestion that someone is using steroids, especially if you are with the Cubs.

I don’t have any idea if Eric Thames is using steroids. He says he’s not. He welcomes as much drug testing as anyone wants to give him (“I’ll be here every day. I have a lot of blood and urine”). There is absolutely no proof whatsoever that he is using other than the fact that he’s hitting baseballs like crazy right now. But I don’t know. How could I know?

One thing I would say is this: Can we please let this play out before assuming the worst about people? A few years ago, my friend Raul Ibanez went on a big home run spree — he had 24 homers at the All-Star break. The inevitable and unfair whispers followed. But over time, people realized that he had just made a couple of adjustments, as older players do, and he had started pulling the ball more, and while it cost him in some ways he hit a few more home runs.

The most striking part of Eric Thames’ game is that — he has become an extreme pull-hitter, something he was not in his first go-around in the Major Leagues. I’m assuming that’s something he picked up in Korea. Right now he’s hitting home runs at a ridiculous pace — 55% of his fly balls are home runs — but it hasn’t even been a month yet. Things will get clearer as times goes on. In the meantime, maybe we can chill, let the picture develop, let the story unfold, and even enjoy this wonderful Thames home run craziness.*

*Let’s add one more thing: Thames was on extremely strict drug testing while in Korea, quite a bit stricter testing than in the U.S. It was IOC drug testing with further restrictions by the South Korean government. Yes, people can beat the testing, we all know that, but to suggest that Thames has been beating the testing for years, come on, you need more than a few home runs in April.

Trea Bien

I was just in Washington, where there was just a little bit of panic about Trea Turner’s first nine games. You might know, Turner hurt his hamstring, and he was hitting around .200, and I heard from various people in my time in the Nation’s Capital: “He just doesn’t look the same.”

Ah, the lovely strains of the Small Sample Symphony.

Here’s Trea Turner hitting the triple to complete his cycle last night.

PANCON rankings

As you might know, we here invented PANCON — the panic condition of baseball fans and and the teams they cheer. Just so you remember the rankings:

PANCON 5: All is normal, the team is playing as expected.

PANCON 4: There is a little edginess, a few players talk about how everybody needs to “pick it up,” trade rumors float around, etc.

PANCON 3: There is palpable concern. Players-only meetings are called. The manager starts shifting lineups. Bullpens are shuffled around.

PANCON 2: Trouble — manager is on the hot seat, fans start a website, players start anonymously talking about how teammates must play harder, the clubhouse becomes an unhappy place.

PANCON 1: Full-scale panic. Manager gets fired. Players get traded. Fans give up hope.

It’s still WAY too early to panic. But why wait? Who is down in PANCON this week?

PANCON 1: Nobody, yet.

PANCON 2: Again, nobody yet, but there are a couple of teams approaching.

PANCON 3: Toronto, Seattle, Kansas City.

The Angels were very much on this list, but things have stabilized somewhat in Anaheim.

Seattle is the most likely team to drop to PANCON 2 … and it could really happen at at any time. The Mariners are actually second in the American League in runs scored, but their starting pitching has been terrible, their bullpen has exploded, there are now injury concerns, and let’s not kid anybody: This is an organization that has panicked before.

On the bright side, though, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto is fantastic, the Mariners will hit all year and a couple of good weeks gets them right back where they need to be. They’re teetering right now but the season is still an open question.

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are just playing all-around dreadful baseball at the moment. The offense has stopped hitting home runs — or pretty much anything else — and there has to be some real concern about Jose Bautista, who is hitting .145. It hasn’t helped that second baseman Devon Travis, who had a nice little 2017, at the moment has an OPS+ of 3. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an OPS+ of 3 before (teammate Steve Pearce has an OPS+ of 7). You have to think things will turn around somewhat for this offense, but if it doesn’t happen soon the PANCON will rise.

Everybody knows the score in Kansas City. Sure, it’s early, but if this team doesn’t pick things up, there will be some moves. Four key players are free agents at the end of the year, and the sooner the Royals move a Lorenzo Cain or Mike Moustakas, the more they might get for them. It’s getting close to decision time for Dayton Moore and company.

PANCON 4: San Francisco, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Texas, Mets.

No real panic for any of these teams yet, but things are not quite right. You would think that the Giants, off to a terrible start and with Bumgarner out, might be scaling toward PANCON 3, but realistically they don’t seem too emotional out there. Things just keep moseying along, Bruce Bochy style.

To me, the team to keep an eye on is the Mets. A fantastic pitching staff and a lineup that cannot hit at all is rarely a good combination. I’ve also learned from recent experience, by the way, that you don’t want to go up to a friend who is also a Mets fan and say, “How about that Daniel Murphy?”

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