In a postseason that's seen teams use everyone short of the mascot in relief, the Astros drew first blood in the ALCS on the strength of their starting pitcher. And while velocity rules the craft of pitching more now than ever before, it was a soft-tossing left-hander who turned in one of the best performances of these playoffs.
Dallas Keuchel obliterated the Yankees' bats Friday night, firing seven shutout innings in Game 1. Tossing zeros isn't anything new for Keuchel, not after winning the Cy Young two years ago and excelling in so many big spots over the past three seasons. But the way he dominated was certainly unusual for Keuchel. And the end result looked a lot more like a Randy Johnson start than the work of a pitcher who rarely tops 90 on the radar gun.
In those seven scoreless innings, Keuchel allowed just four singles and a walk ... and struck out 10. In the process, he became just the fourth pitcher ever to blank the Yankees over seven or more innings in a playoff start, while also racking up 10 or more Ks. The others? Pedro Martinez, Cliff Lee ... and Randy Johnson.
That wasn't necessarily by design. Keuchel is at his best when he flirts with shins and ankles, firing pitches at the bottom of the strike zone, and often lower. He did that masterfully in Game 1. Check out this plot of each of the 109 pitches he threw in the game:
That is just cruel. Keuchel threw about 10 of his 109 pitches in the upper third of the zone. After that, we got an absolute onslaught of pitches that required a scuba license to reach. Typically, when Keuchel's on his game and keeping the ball down, the result is an orgy of groundballs. His 66.8 percent groundball rate led all starting pitchers this season by a wide margin; he finished third in groundball rate last year, and second two seasons ago.
This time, Yankees hitters jumped out of their shoes to try to hit all those low pitches. And rather than burning worms, they helicoptered themselves into violent whiffs. Witness this bit of filth from Friday's game, a two-seam fastball, typically slow at 90 mph (rounded up!), but in this case with such wicked, almost screwball action, it triggers a huge swing-and-miss:
Keuchel averaged less than 90 mph on his patented two-seamer in this game, par for the course for the starting pitcher with the fifth-slowest heater in the majors this year (those below him include Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, whose combined age is infinity). Per usual, he induced a ton of weak contact, generating a tortoise-level slow exit velocity of 81 mph.
But the kicker on this night was how often the Yankees simply failed to make contact at all. Of Keuchel's 109 pitches, an incredible 35 were untouched strikes -- either via swings and misses, or as called strikes. Keuchel did that with his two-seamer and cutter, but even more dramatically with his slider. The southpaw hurled 28 sliders in the game, generated whiffs on seven of them, and saw just two hit into play, with neither of those two balls in play falling in for hits. When your leading secondary pitch produces a .000 batting average against, you're doing alright.
If you want some more visual descriptions of Keuchel's low-ball assault, check out how power-hitting Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez's night went, via the indispensable Brooks Baseball:
That's just cruel, with the final strikeout on a pitch in the dirt adding insult to Sanchez's injury.
After the game, one of the big narratives was that Keuchel continues to own the Yankees. Over the past three seasons against the Bombers, he's made seven starts, allowing just 30 hits and eight walks while striking out a very un-Keuchel-like 57 batters, while flashing a microscopic 0.73 ERA.
But that's just the small picture. The bigger picture is that while other teams watch their starters struggle, and get all hands on deck ready for relief work in every game, the Astros have not one but two elite starters who evoke the days of Gibson and Koufax and hell, Bumgarner too. Justin Verlander was the all-world deadline acquisition who offered the potential to put a loaded Astros team over the top.
Just don't call Verlander the only ace on this club. By weaponizing his down-in-the-zone approach and exploiting overeager young hitters like Sanchez, Keuchel and his high-80s fastball rang up the kind of strikeout numbers you expect from the prototypical 2017 pitcher who throws 10 mph harder ... the kind of pitchers, in fact, you often see on the Yankees. If the Astros continue to combine the league's best offense (by far) with Verlander and Keuchel's fire-and-ice at full strength, good luck to anyone who thinks they might beat them.
Thanks to Nick Pollack of PitcherList.com for providing research help for this article.