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Taking Notice: Astros Lefty Dallas Keuchel

Coming into the 2011 season, the Houston Astros only had one left-handed starter among their top-30 and you could argue that he really wasn’t much of a prospect at all. In 2010 Baseball America ranked him 24th among the Astros farmhands and while that slot isn’t all that impressive to begin with, it becomes even less so when you factor in that Houston’s system was ranked dead last in both 2009 and 2010.

For 23-year old Dallas Keuchel, and the Astros organization, the picture was a little brighter heading into 2011. Dallas moved up from 24th to 23rd in the team’s top 30 and the organization as a whole moved from the basement to 26th. It was the first time Houston had been out of the bottom two since ranking 22nd back in 2007.

Keuchel remains a bit of a long shot to reach the major leagues and have an impact there, but despite his lackluster velocity and fringy curveball he’s getting the job done for the Corpus Christi Hooks. Enough so that he got my attention.

I’m not here to tell you that he’s changed his fortunes and now profiles to hold down a spot at the front of Houston’s rotation some day. Far from it really, but the 7th round pick out of the 2009 draft has a number of things going for him and he’s the type of player that makes following the minors so enjoyable.

It would probably work better if the Rangers had drafted him but you combine the name Dallas with the fact that he pitches in the Astros organization and you have something right there. If nothing else it elicits a chuckle from me, but then again, I’m easily amused. Beyond that though, I’m always a fan of teams that draft local products. I think it makes it easier for fans to identify with the players, especially when it comes to the minor leagues. It gives people another reason to root for a player who has that local “flavor” and when it comes to Dallas Keuchel it goes beyond just his first name.

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma he pitched for Bishop Kelley High School (also in Tulsa) before electing to play college baseball at the University of Arkansas. In 2009 he led the Razorbacks to their 6th College World Series appearance in school history. Keuchel was instrumental in CWS victories over Cal State Fullerton as a starter and over Virginia as a reliever. Arkansas would wind up losing to eventual CWS champion LSU, but Dallas earned marks and praise for the leadership, poise and team-first attitude he displayed in Omaha.

Background like that is nice and it makes a great story, but what really matters is whether or not he can pitch.

For a more detailed breakdown of his stuff, we can turn to a June 2010 report from Crawfish Boxes to use as the initial framework:

His high 80’s two-seam FB is what really helps him out. Every report I could find said it has heavy sink and allows him to induce a lot of ground-balls. He also throws the typical change-up. The big pitch on him is his curveball. Every report says it’s his best pitch, and it’s a good one. He commands it and can paint it on the outside corner against lefties. It doesn’t have a lot of hump in it, so it looks like a FB at first and it just drops off the table. He also says that his slider can be dominant. His stuff isn’t eye-popping, but he has excellent control and pitchibility which allows for his stuff to play higher than it is.

Most of the above is in agreement with Baseball America’s write up of him in their 2011 Prospect Handbook though there are a few differences in the assessment worth noting:

His delivery has become stiffer and more mechanical since signing, and he worked at 83-86 in 2010. Keuchel’s curveball has been a swing-and-miss pitch at lower levels because he locates it well, but scouts consider it fringy because it breaks early.

Coupling the BA write-up with what John Sickels had to say in The Baseball Prospect Handbook 2011, we can see that the curveball is not going to be much of a weapon at the major league level without some adjustments:

Keuchel’s velocity is nothing impressive at 86-89 MPH, but his fastball sinks well … He has a very good changeup. His curveball and slider are mediocre, and will need to be improved if he wants to remain a starter as he moves up.

Last year Keuchel survived the offensive environs of Lancaster in the California League boasting a strong 3.36 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 1.9 BB/9 and a surprising 7.2 SO/9 in 120.2 innings pitched. On the surface those numbers are solid but not great, but once you factor in the impact that the Cal League has on pitchers it’s clear that Dallas was doing something right. He made 9 starts in Double-A last year and while the numbers fell off, he stayed afloat and survived the difficult transition from A-ball to Double-A.

This season, back in Double-A, he’s doing more than just surviving. He’s made 13 starts for Corpus Christi so far and boasts a 2.84 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 82.1 IP. As you would expect against more advanced hitters, his SO/9 rate has dropped to 4.7 and his BB/9 has increased to 2.3. However, he has managed to offset those losses by cutting his H/9 from 9.7 (between A+ and AA) last season to 7.9 this season. Now some of the drop in his H/9 is due to his BABIP falling from the 0.320s last season to 0.254 this year. One would expect that his BABIP will normalize to some degree and at some point but he profiles as one of those guys who will generally have a BABIP lower than league average given the heavy sink on his fastball as well as his control and strong changeup.

He’s turned in a quality start 9 times out of his 13 appearances and 6 out of his last 7, but it’s his last three starts that grabbed my attention and compelled me to write this column.

June 10th: 7.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 8 SO
June 15th: 7.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 1 SO
June 20th: 7.0 IP , 5 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 5 SO

He probably won’t get beyond the label of being a back of the rotation starter, but he has the frame and the stuff to be an asset at the major league level in that role. He’s already shown the ability to pitch deep into games, and the fact that he’s a southpaw with good control, should help him get several chances.

In 2010 Dallas Keuchel survived the jump to Double-A and in 2011 he’s thriving there. In my humble opinion, he deserves a promotion to the Oklahoma City RedHawks (AAA) sooner rather than later. Here’s hoping the Astros feel the same way and give the young 23-year old lefty a chance to master the Pacific Coast League this season.

Tags: Corpus Christi Hooks Dallas Keuchel Houston Astros Texas League

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