Dallas Keuchel has managed to be the surprise breakout pitcher in two consecutive years. In 2014, he won the 5th starter job out of Spring Training. There were many who did not think he would hold on to it for very long. He answered the critics by posting a stellar 2.93 ERA, supported by a league best ground ball rate. That was his story. He achieved success by elevating his groundball rate from 55.8 to 63.5, and improving his control (2.16 BB/9), masking his inability to strike batters out. His K/9 of 6.57 was in the bottom 25 among qualified starters. His FIP and xFIP, both respectable at 3.20 and 3.21, indicated that he was legit, but also forewarned of some regression.
As 2015 rolled in, much of the Astros success relied on how much regression was in store for Keuchel and his fellow breakout rotation mate Collin McHugh. Very few expected either of them to get better. The question was how much worse. McHugh has been up and down, but for the most part has replicated his success of last year, with a notable rough patch. Keuchel, on the other hand, is the front runner for the AL Cy Young as we roll into September. How did he do it?
The start of the 2015 season for Keuchel was really more of the same from his 2014 numbers. As of May 25, his 10th start of the year, he had a sparking 1.98 ERA, but had 49 strikeouts and 21 walks in 72 2/3 innings. The resulting 6.06 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 indicated that he would likely put up similar numbers as he did in 2014, at least going forward.
Then, on May 30, Keuchel pitched a complete game shutout, and obliterated his previous strikeout high with 11. He beat that total again a month later, striking out 12 Yankees in another complete game shutout. He then struck out 13 Rangers, in only 7 innings, on July 19. He's peppered in three seven strikeout games, four eight strikeout games and nine strikeout game as well. In 94 career starts, Keuchel has struck out 8+ 17 times. 8 of them have come in his 17 starts since May 30.
All told, since May 30, he has 124 strikeouts, against only 21 walk, in 120 innings. The 9.3 K/9 and 1.57 BB/9 has brought his season totals to 8.08 K/9 and 1.96. Good for 32nd and 20th in the majors, 13th and 10th in the AL. He still has the elite ground ball skills, second in the majors at 62.5%. But the added ability to get the strikeout has made him a more complete pitcher.
In the end, Keuchel did not prove the doubters, who said regression was coming based on a pedestrian strikeout rate, wrong. Instead, he, for the second time in as many years, became a different pitcher. Last year, he proved he can have an effective year with an elite ground ball rate and a pedestrian strikeout rate. Add in a K/9 over 9? He can win a Cy Young.