Tuesday night in Los Angeles—and, barring a World Series sweep, again in Game 5 in Houston—the Dodgers will face off against Dallas Keuchel, one of two former Cy Young Award winners in the Astros’ rotation. It doesn’t bode well for the Dodgers that they’ll likely face Keuchel twice in the series, because Keuchel is good (#analysis). It may, however, bode better for the Dodgers than the same assignment would for any other offense. On paper, at least, the Dodgers could be Keuchel’s kryptonite.
This isn’t a handedness thing, although platoon performance will be relevant. The main concern surrounding the 2016 Dodgers was their perceived weakness against left-handed pitching; last October, I noted that the Dodgers had posted the worst-ever line against lefties by a playoff team, although I also argued that their stats against southpaws might not reflect their true talent. That vulnerability seemed to persist into the first few weeks of this season, but the team’s platoon polarity soon flipped thanks to the emergence of Chris Taylor and Austin Barnes, the reversals of last year’s fluky reverse splits for righties Justin Turner and Kike Hernández, the phase-out of Adrián González, and the strong left-on-left seasons from Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger. The Dodgers finished the season with MLB’s third-best batting stats against lefties, outstripping their also-solid record against righties.
In that sense, then, the Dodgers are well-equipped to take on the left-handed Keuchel. But lumping Keuchel in with all lefties ignores the uniqueness of his pitching approach. Keuchel is one of a kind—and therein lies what may be an even greater susceptibility to the Dodgers.
On a league-wide level, pitchers have been fleeing from the strike zone for seven consecutive seasons. In 2010, 50 percent of pitches were located inside the strike zone; in 2017, only 46.4 percent were, as pitchers leaned more heavily on breaking balls and sought to stay away from most hitters’ power centers in a season of record home run rates. Even in an era of strike-zone avoidance, though, Keuchel is just about breaking the curve. From 2014-16, Keuchel threw 42.3 percent of his pitches in the strike zone, but this year, he lowered his aim and upped the ante, delivering only 34.5 percent of his pitches in the zone—the lowest rate in the pitch-tracking era aside from the less illustrious Wade Miley’s 34.3, also from this season. No pitcher throws the ball lower, on average, than Keuchel, who lives on the black and beyond (or below).
Skirting the strike zone serves Keuchel well for two reasons. First, his Glavine-like command helps him increase the odds of receiving strike calls (after accounting for location) more than any other pitcher by peppering the periphery of the zone and expanding its edges bit by bit. Second, the probable balls he throws bear enough resemblance to strikes that hitters often expand the zone themselves: Keuchel’s regular-season chase rate ranked 23rd of 134 pitchers with at least 100 innings thrown this year.
In theory, though, the Dodgers should be adept at depriving him of that second route to out-of-zone strikes. This year, L.A.’s lineup chased less often than any other team’s. If the Dodgers stay true to form and lay off of Keuchel’s low and outside offerings, they’ll force him up and into the strike zone. That’s the best way to beat him, because Keuchel, whose go-to sinker sits around 90 mph, can’t rely on blowing hittable pitches by batters. The difference between hitters’ results against Keuchel deliveries inside and out of the strike zone this season was nearly twice as large as the corresponding difference against the typical pitcher.
wOBA Allowed Inside vs. Outside Strike Zone
|Group||In Zone||Out of Zone||Difference|
|Group||In Zone||Out of Zone||Difference|
In Keuchel’s second ALCS start, the Yankees gave us a glimpse of what the Dodgers should try to do against the lefty. In his first start in the series, Keuchel threw only 39 percent of his sinkers and 29 percent of his sliders inside the zone, and the Yankees swung away fruitlessly across seven scoreless innings.
In Game 5, though, a combination of shakier command and Yankees selectivity led to many more in-zone pitches, including 45 percent of Keuchel’s sinkers and 65 percent of his sliders. In that start, which yielded only a handful of out-of-zone swings, Keuchel lasted only 4 2/3 innings and allowed four runs.
History suggests that the likelihood of another subpar start from Keuchel will be elevated against L.A. There’s evidence that the Dodgers do, in fact, hit especially well against pitchers who habitually stay away from the strike zone, and even stronger evidence that Keuchel suffers disproportionately against hitters who don’t chase.
The table below shows how the Dodgers did during the 2017 regular season against pitchers with bottom 25 percent or top 25 percent zone rates (or, in this case, a close Baseball Prospectus equivalent dubbed “Called Strike Probability,” which I’m going to refer to for now as “zone rate” for simplicity’s sake), compared to the performance of all non-Dodgers MLB batters against the same classes of pitchers. The header in the right-most column, TAv, stands for True Average, a park- and league-adjusted Baseball Prospectus stat that scales all aspects of performance at the plate into a batting average-esque rate.
|All MLB batters||41523||.253||.315||.416||.259|
|All MLB batters||48492||.257||.307||.428||.259|
As one would expect, the Dodgers were better than the league as a whole against both groups of pitchers. But while their edge on the league against high-zone-rate pitchers was only 12 points of True Average, their edge against low-zone-rate pitchers rose to 19 points. As we surmised, the Dodgers beat up on pitchers in Keuchel’s class by depriving them of their ability to exploit undisciplined hitters’ temptation.
We see something more eye-popping than that when we compare Keuchel’s 2017 performance against hitters who do or don’t chase to that of all non-Keuchel pitchers.
Below-Average Chase Rate Hitters
|All MLB pitchers||96025||.259||.340||.439||.272|
Above-Average Chase Rate Hitters
|All MLB pitchers||71786||.265||.323||.443||.266|
Keuchel, because he’s good, does better than a league-average pitcher whether the hitter is prone to chasing or not, but there’s an enormous disparity in those splits. Against selective hitters, who are happy to take his low or outside pitches for balls, he’s only a little bit better than the league (seven points of True Average). But against free-swinging hitters, who’ll lunge at pitches out of the strike zone, he’s 98 points better than the league.
This difference is so massive that it’s worth trying to put into perspective. As the table shows, aggressive hitters batted .179/.231/.254 against Keuchel this season, which translates to a .168 True Average. For reference, pitchers produced a .134 True Average, which is not a lot lower. Among actual hitters who made at least 100 trips to the plate this year, the closest to .168 was Padres catcher Luis Torrens, a Rule 5 pick who’d never played above A ball prior to 2017. In essence, selective hitters who faced Keuchel hit more or less like their regular selves. Aggressive guys, meanwhile, hit like A-ball catchers. Unfortunately for Keuchel, the Dodgers don’t have many aggressive guys.
In short, the Dodgers do well against Keuchel types, and Keuchel does way, way worse against hitters like the ones up and down the Dodgers’ lineup. Worse still for Houston, the Dodgers’ command of the strike zone is only one way in which this matchup leans toward L.A.
Prior research has shown that matchups of like against like tend to favor pitchers: Just as left-handed pitchers do better against left-handed hitters than right-handed hitters, fly ball pitchers do better against fly ball hitters than ground ball hitters, and ground ball pitchers do better against ground ball hitters than fly ball hitters. Keuchel is an extreme ground ball guy coming off a season in which he posted the lowest ground ball rate on record (non–Derek Lowe division). That’s the profile of a pitcher who eats up ground ball hitters.
In keeping with our theme today, though, the Dodgers don’t have a lot of ground ball guys. As a unit, L.A. posted MLB’s fourth-highest fly ball rate during the regular season (and the second highest in the second half), as well as the league’s seventh-lowest ground ball rate (and the second lowest in the second half). In general, the Dodgers are a low-ball-hitting team. Although they ranked just 22nd in wOBA during the regular season against pitches in the upper third of the zone and above, they ranked fourth against pitches in the lower third and below—and, to get even more granular, second against low pitches from lefties, which they’ll be seeing a ton of when they face Keuchel.
To sum up: Keuchel is a left-handed, strike zone–averse, ground ball–oriented starter who loves to stay down, going against a team that hits lefties hard, chews up pitchers who stay away from the zone, launches a lot of fly balls, and punishes low pitches. For all of those reasons, the stats say that the Dodgers should be Keuchel’s worst nightmare—more negative news for an Astros team whose path to victory in games 1 and 5 already runs through Clayton Kershaw, leaving little room for their own starter to struggle.
Which takes us to the “past performance is no guarantee of future results” portion of this piece. Even if Keuchel is predisposed to do poorly against the Dodgers, that weakness might not manifest in any single game or series. Only three Dodgers hitters—Logan Forsythe, Chase Utley, and Taylor—have ever faced Keuchel, and only Forsythe has seen him more recently than 2014 or more than six times overall. Maybe the Dodgers, in their first confrontation with Keuchel, will depart from their typical game plan, no matter how selective the scouting report tells them to be. Maybe Keuchel’s command will be even more unerring than usual, or—anticipating that the Dodgers will be waiting him out—he’ll try to take them by surprise and pound the zone for free strikes. Maybe a bunch of hard-hit balls will find gloves.
Or maybe—and here’s Houston’s best bet—a combination of Keuchel’s pitch placement and generous umpiring will turn the Dodgers’ discipline against them. In Game 1, Phil Cuzzi—who ranked sixth in umpire strikeout-to-walk ratio during the regular season—will be behind home plate, ready to ring up the Dodgers on borderline calls. And if the series gets to Game 5, the plate ump would be Bill Miller, one of the few umps with a more pitcher-friendly long-term track record than Cuzzi. No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, and in this case, L.A.’s enemy might be the umpires, whose strike-calling won’t do the Dodgers any favors if Keuchel is anywhere close to the zone.
In many respects, this series resists analysis. It’s a showdown between two teams with triple-digit win totals that spent most of the season as presumptive pennant favorites. Both teams are ultra-talented, and neither roster has a hidden blemish obscured by Spanx or a comb-over. There are only so many flaws for the stats to expose. And in Game 1’s tone-setting tussle between two southpaw Cy Young winners, no one will have it easy: Kershaw will be facing the best lineup in baseball, while Keuchel will be tackling the one almost perfectly constructed to torment him.