A model for Orioles' lefty prospects, Astros Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel imparts advice

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Try as the Orioles might to follow the blueprint for teams that have bottomed out and built themselves back into contenders, plenty of luck is required with a rebuilding process that goes sideways just as often as it goes well.

So, as they sit and watch as the Houston Astros, who successfully rebuilt earlier this decade, face the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, the man taking the ball for Game 3 on Tuesday is an example of a prospect coming from out of nowhere to find success: left-hander Dallas Keuchel.

When the Astros slipped to 106 losses in 2011, Keuchel was a 23-year-old with a fastball in the mid- to high-80s who had pitched well in Double-A but struggled upon his introduction to Triple-A that year. He was their No. 21 prospect after that season, up from No. 23 in 2010 and No. 24 in 2009, when he was a seventh-round draft pick after a standout career at Arkansas.

What does that have to do with the Orioles? Their prospect list is littered with left-handers who get by on guile and pitchability over velocity. And for those pitchers to succeed without premium stuff at the highest level, the likes of Keegan Akin, Alex Wells, Zac Lowther, and even Josh Rogers, Cam Bishop and Bruce Zimmermann need to overcome all the stigmas that Keuchel did in growing into a Cy Young Award winner.

"One, it's experience," Keuchel said last month when the Astros wrapped up the regular season in Baltimore. "I think back to my time in the minor leagues, every time I jumped a level, I had a hard time adjusting because I wasn't used to what the next level was. But when I got my feet wet and made adjustments, I proved that you can make adjustments and figure something out, you can have success. I'm sure some of those guys over with the Orioles should be doing the same thing. The ability to manipulate the ball and make it move is much more valuable than just throwing hard."

Looking back at Keuchel's scouting reports from when he was coming up, the language used to describe him and some of the Orioles’ left-handed pitching prospects are similar. He touched 90-91 mph, but mostly worked at 85-87 and located it impeccably. He had the makings of a plus changeup and used a curveball, and didn't miss many bats but got the job done.

Akin, the Orioles’ second-round pick in 2016, has a bit more velocity, but the late life on his fastball is more notable than the fact that he ran it up to 94 mph this year. Both he and Lowther, the 2017 competitive balance pick, throw what they and hitters describe as an invisball, where hitters simply can't pick it up out of their hands and it gets on them faster than the velocity would imply, though Lowther, 22, is a few ticks below Akin, 23, with his fastball on a regular basis.

Wells, 21, tops out around 91 mph and has the makings of possibly an above-average curveball and changeup, but he too is more successful because of his command than his stuff. Zimmermann, 23, a Loyola Blakefield product acquired from the Atlanta Braves in the Kevin Gausman trade, is mostly at 88-90 mph with his fastball but pumps it up late in counts and has an above-average changeup to play off it. Bishop, 22, has a four-pitch mix that worked well at Low-A Delmarva.

But the minors are infested with pitchability left-handers who make it until they can't. By Keuchel's recommendations, though, the highest-profile ones in the Orioles system are on the right track by way of their improvements once they figured out the challenges of their levels. Akin needed to skip a start in 2017 after a rough outing at High-A Frederick to make a mechanical adjustment, and pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA the rest of the season. He also took a couple of starts to get settled at Double-A this year, but ended up sharing the Orioles' Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year award this year after finishing with a 3.27 ERA that was below 3.00 for over three months before a rough last start.

He split those honors with Lowther, who dominated at Delmarva, scuffled in his High-A debut and was lights out the rest of the way, ending with a 2.53 ERA in the Carolina League.

Wells, too, spent a few months seeing how fine his command had to be at Frederick before turning a corner and posting a 2.34 ERA in his last eight starts to end the year with a 3.47 ERA.

Other than that, there's one key thing Keuchel, 30, picked up along the way that many outside evaluators think will be the difference for any of the Orioles prospects taking the next step to stick as effective major league starters. None of Keuchel's minor league scouting reports included his cutter, which developed into a weapon for him to run in on right-handed hitters. He already had a sinker that moved in ways that hitters don't often see from left-handers, but the cutter gave him another pitch in the higher velocity band that moved differently and got weak contact.

While Akin throws a slider, Wells and Lowther have more shapely curveballs. All three have the makings of effective breaking balls, and the way they throw changeups show an ability to manipulate the ball well. Adding something like a cutter the way Keuchel did (and to a different extent, Orioles left-hander Richard Bleier did) could be the difference between stalling out and breaking through in an era when velocity is king but not the only way for pitchers to win.

"I know teams value that more now — the velocity — but that's why you see guys getting hurt a ton now, trying to overthrow and their body can't handle it," Keuchel said. "I look at myself in this position and I cherish every day that I get to throw a ball, because it's less torque on my body, but in turn it plays tricks on hitters' minds. But it's just making adjustments and always trying to think ahead is what really resonates in my mind from my time in the minor leagues.

"If you learn something before you get to the big stage, it's going to help. The only time it's not going to help is if it's a bad habit. If you develop bad habits in the minor leagues, you'll never have success here when you're called up. But the mind is a big thing, and it can be your best friend or your worst enemy. This game is built off failure, and you've got to start with that. But anytime you can learn something new — a wrinkle or anything — you're just helping yourself out."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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