Houston Astros: What to do about the Dallas Keuchel conundrum

HOUSTON, TX - MAY 27: Dallas Keuchel
HOUSTON, TX - MAY 27: Dallas Keuchel /

The Houston Astros were looking forward to the return of their ace Dallas Keuchel on July 28th. The team with the best record in the American League was now welcoming back the guy who was the best pitcher at the beginning of the season.

But since the Houston Astros got Dallas Keuchel back, he has been roughed up by the opposition. In his three starts since his return, his ERA has jumped a full 1.2 runs from 1.67 to 2.87.

Now obviously that’s in part because a 1.67 ERA only needs one bad start to make it jump. But a jump of over a full run in three starts is still disconcerting.

Keuchel has yet to make it past the fifth inning and has only thrown 12 total innings in his three starts. By comparison, in his first 11 starts of the year only once did he not make it past the fifth inning, and it was the game he was pulled early because of neck discomfort that landed him on the 10 day disabled list on May 16th.

It’s an intriguing issue to try and figure out. There are a multitude of reasons you could explore for his struggles post injury:

  1. Are there lingering effects from his injury? That was the reason for his ineffectiveness last year. It would be frustrating if Keuchel came back before he was ready simply because he wanted to pitch. While competitive spirit is great, if he’s not fully back and has to go on the disabled list again it puts our hopes of a deep post season run in jeopardy.
  2. Is it simply rust? He had a couple rehab starts before coming back up to the majors, but perhaps it really is just a matter of getting a feel for his pitches again and these starts are like extended spring training. Which Keuchel has the luxury of doing that with the tremendous lead the Astros have over the rest of the league.
  3. Is it mental? Keuchel was not happy with standing pat at the trade deadline and may have ruffled some locker room feathers by saying he was disappointed the team didn’t add more talent. Is there something going on behind the scenes that may be affecting his performance that isn’t physcial?

We don’t really have a read yet on what could be the main culprit. It could be a combination of factors with none outweighing the other. One thing that’s clear is that Keuchel is not a pitcher who can get away with being a little bit off with his location.

In his first 11 starts of the year, Keuchel had only one game where he issued three walks, and it was a game where he threw a full nine innings.  In his three starts back, he’s already doubled that with two out of three games issuing three walks, in three innings pitched in his first start back and four innings pitched in his most recent start.

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Whatever the reason doesn’t matter if Keuchel can right the ship. Perhaps the lack of trade deadline moves is making him feel pressure that our World Series chances hinge on him returning to form and he’s pressing as a result.

Unfortunately, Keuchel’s ineffectiveness combined with Lance McCullers Jr. recent performance and health struggles is making what once looked like the most formidable one-two punch at the top of a rotation in the AL seem vulnerable and beating the duo is not seeming like such a difficult task after all.

We still have the best record in the American League, though it has now dwindled to only 7.5 games over the Boston Red Sox. But the Astros have a comfortable enough lead in their division that the only regular season focus right now should be to get everyone healthy for October.

We can scuttle our way into the playoffs with a weak second half record, so long as the team is healthy and effective come autumn baseball. And the team obviously doesn’t need home field advantage with it’s absurd 38-16 road record. So getting the team healthy and efficient is paramount.

Next: Alex Bregman filling void of Carlos Correa

Right now though, that goal of health and efficiency seems to be in jeopardy with nine players on the disabled list including three of our six all-stars, and two of our all-stars (Keuchel and Chris Devenski) have been struggling of late. With the health and performance struggles of so many important pieces, Jose Altuve‘s case for MVP becomes stronger every day. But for now, the biggest thing is Keuchel pitching like he’s capable of. If he doesn’t return to form, it could mean another year, another playoff disappointment for crestfallen Astros fans.