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Game 9 Preview: Detroit Tigers at Houston Astros

Reigning AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel makes his first home start of 2016, where he was 15-0 last season.

Dylan Buell/Getty Images

I don't like the Houston Astros. No, not in the sense that I dislike their team; they hit a lot of home runs, have Carlos Correa on their roster, and are good in a fresh and quirky kind of way. I just don't like the idea of the Tigers playing them right now.

This line of thinking probably seems backwards. The Astros are currently 3-7, losers of three straight after an 8-2 victory against Kansas City on Monday. They have lost series to the Yankees, Brewers, and Royals so far this year.

So, naturally, this is probably when they shake off the cobwebs and turn into the juggernaut everyone projected.

The Astros were far better than anyone expected in 2015, winning 86 games and clinching the second AL Wild Card spot after leading the AL West for most of the season. They beat the Yankees in the Wild Card game, then were outs away from knocking off the Royals in the AL West, all a year or two before anyone thought they would be contenders.

The scary part? That 2015 Astros team underperformed its pythagorean expected record by seven games, and they added talent in the offseason. Young studs like Correa, George Springer, and Preston Tucker are a year older, while additions like Doug Fister and Ken Giles should bolster the pitching staff. Dallas Keuchel makes his first home start of the year on Friday where he was 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA last season.

This Astros team is very good. We just haven't seen it yet, and that is scary.

Detroit Tigers (6-2) at Houston Astros (3-7)

Time/Place: 8:10 p.m., Minute Maid Park
SB Nation blog: Crawfish Boxes
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Mike Pelfrey (0-1, 14.73 ERA) vs. LHP Dallas Keuchel (1-1, 3.55 ERA)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pelfrey 3.2 15.8 5.3 5.90 0.0
Keuchel 12.2 23.6 18.2 3.49 0.2

It's early, but reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel might be broken. After posting a 2.48 ERA and 4.24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 232 innings last season, Keuchel has already walked 10 batters in 12 2/3 innings to open 2016. He has walked at least four hitters in both of his starts, something he only did one time last year. In fact, Keuchel only walked 11 hitters in the entire month of April, and that was his worst month of the year (he walked three -- three -- hitters in July).

There might be a reason for the uptick in walk rate. Keuchel came out of nowhere to post a 3.8 fWAR season in 2014, then followed that up with his 6.1 WAR Cy Young campaign last year, drastically improving both his walk and strikeout rates in the process. FanGraphs' Eno Sarris thinks this year's hiccup -- and, by extension, his previous breakout -- are related to how often he can get hitters to chase. Spoiler alert: they aren't as aggressive in 2016.

Only two pitchers threw a lower percentage of pitches in the zone last year than Dallas Keuchel. This year, batters are swinging at 38.4% of his pitches, down off of 43.8% career. If you watch the games, it really seems like everyone’s trying to be more patient. Keuchel has struggled with the walks some early on, and he’s going to have to use his great command to convince people to start swinging again.

It should now come as no surprise that Keuchel's swinging strike rate is down to 6.5 percent, which is lower than what Randy Wolf managed with the Tigers last season.

This is bad news for Houston if this continues. Hitters aren't chasing off the plate nearly as often as before, and Keuchel doesn't have the stuff to consistently get major league bats out within the strike zone. We saw what that looks like in 2012 and 2013, when he posted a 5.20 ERA and 4.78 FIP in 239 innings. His 1.77 strikeout-to-walk ratio was Alfredo Simon-esque, and he looked more likely to be designated for assignment than to become an eventual Cy Young winner.

That said, watch him throw eight shutout innings tonight.

Tigers hitter to fear: Ian Kinsler (.318/.375/.455 in 24 plate appearances)
Tigers hitter to fail: Miguel Cabrera (.111/.333/.111 in 12 plate appearances)

Like most of baseball, the Tigers fared just fine against Keuchel during his first couple years in the major leagues. Last season? Not so much. Keuchel was dynamite in their lone meeting last season, striking out eight while allowing just one run in seven innings. When you're holding Miguel Cabrera to a .111 average, you're doing something right.


Keuchel's command issues and the league's adjustment to his junkballing ways are a red flag, especially against a lineup as patient as Detroit's. The Tigers have the fourth-lowest swinging strike rate in baseball, and have only chased 25.6 percent of pitches thrown outside the strike zone, second-lowest in the American League. They have struggled so far against soft-tossing lefties -- both of whom, like Keuchel, feature good cut-fastballs -- but won't stay that way for long. Things could get ugly for Houston.

However, it's two games. Keuchel had a few rough outings in 2015 and nobody panicked, and it's not like the higher walk rate has killed his other numbers. He was sharp in spring training, striking out 16 batters to two walks, and will eventually get back on track. Keuchel was lights out at Minute Maid Park in 2015, and should be a very tough matchup again this year.


Keuchel dominates and Houston rolls to an easy win.


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