Dallas Keuchel Approaches Perfection
4:49 PM EDT on August 20, 2023
The post atop Dallas Keuchel's Twitter timeline is from mid-June, and he's wearing a tank top in it. The 2015 Cy Young Award winner is seen from behind, although his beard is implausibly, inevitably still visible. He is throwing a live session at the pitching lab Driveline, and the text of the tweet breaks down the specs on his various pitches. There's a little flame emoji to the left of his 89.0 mph fastball velocity and the eyes emoji to the right; to the right of that is a parenthetical noting that this is nearly two miles per hour faster than Keuchel was throwing his fastball in 2022. At the time that Keuchel retweeted that post, he was still without a job in baseball. Those insistent emojis notwithstanding, it was easy to wonder whether, at the age of 35, he was going to get another one. A little over a week later, he signed a minor league deal with the Minnesota Twins.
By American League Central standards, this more or less qualifies as "going for it," even if Keuchel didn't make his way back to the bigs for another month and change. It qualifies as going for it even considering that Keuchel was low-wattage but decently effective in his first start, and unable to make it out of the second inning in his second. That is more of an American League Central thing than it is anything else, but while the Twins plugging Keuchel into the rotation spot vacated by an injured Joe Ryan isn't the sort of stretch-run reload that fans generally dream about, it was also not obviously rowing backwards, which set the Twins apart from every other team in the division. It was an attempt to plug a hole in the roster, as opposed to a considered strategic decision to widen and deepen it. This is the division that the Twins play in, and when Keuchel took the mound for his third start on Sunday, against the Pirates, their lead over the Guardians was 5 games. They were four games over .500.
The flame and eyes emojis might scan almost as a taunt, given a little bit of context—Keuchel hasn't pitched effectively in the Majors since the Covid-truncated 2020 season, and his numbers settled towards some unsightly equilibriums over 10 starts with three teams last year, with his K/BB ratio nudging towards even and his ERA landing exactly at 9.00. He was not healthy, and he was not himself. "I think more the doubt was, 'Am I ever going to be healthy?'" Keuchel told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune when he was called up in early August. "That was really the one thing weighing a lot on my mind and mentally that took a toll probably more than I let on last year. It was a nice seven months to get back. This was one of the spots I really wanted to be from the get-go. It just worked out the way it worked out." Keuchel was not striking batters out in bulk at Triple-A, either, but he was the International League's Pitcher of the Month for July. His beard, when he made it back to the bigs, was fuller than it had been in June, and had acquired the worryingly precise geometric shape of those worn by people who rap about Donald Trump.
For a long time, the Twins were drawn seemingly as a matter of institutional values towards a type of pitcher that doesn't really exist anymore. Sometimes this pitcher was a featureless create-a-player template, and sometimes they were a refrigerator-shaped lug, but always, always they defined themselves by what they did not do, which was walk batters or strike them out. They threw strikes, generally not very fast or very stylishly, and then good or bad things happened behind them. Think of Carlos Silva dutifully inducing grounders and striking out one of every ten guys he faced over the course of his tenure in Minnesota and you will either mourn a time when pitchers had the same energy and physical shape as checked-out bouncers and baseball games mostly kind of sucked, or count yourself grateful that they don't really make them like that anymore. For his first two starts, Keuchel was more or less one of those Coelacanthian ham-and-eggers; in the last ten years, only two other starting pitchers had allowed at least 14 hits and four walks over two starts without recording a single strikeout.
That trend hasn't really reversed; that's not how things work for 35-year-old pitchers. But Keuchel was perfect for six-and-a-third innings on Sunday, and struck out his first three batters of the season; he faced 42 hitters before he struck one out, which was precisely twice as many as any Twins pitcher had ever faced before getting his first strikeout. Infielders Nick Gordon and Willians Astudillo both struck out their first hitter much more quickly during their turns mopping up blowouts. When Keuchel finally gave up a double to Bryan Reynolds, with one out in the seventh, the Twins pulled him in favor of Griffin Jax. The home fans gave Keuchel a standing ovation; Jax immediately struck out both batters he faced.
None of this is significant. The Twins are doing the absolute minimum amount of Trying To Compete necessary to qualify as actually doing it, and they are still more or less running away with a division that has, with the exception of one instant classic brawl, spent the entire season perfectly replicating the experience of waiting in a long line at a car rental place. The Pirates are doing even less than that. In the context of this series, what Keuchel did on Sunday was only barely notable; it was the second straight game in which Pittsburgh had been held without a hit or a walk over the first five innings. This is August, and this was some extremely August baseball.
But for all the other things that it was, Keuchel's brief and low-intensity flirtation with perfection on Sunday was a reminder of just how many things can happen in baseball. It was unlikely that Keuchel, at this point in his career, would throw a perfect game, and as it turned out he did not. But unlikely things happen all the time, even in the squashed-flat and sun-dazed middle period of August, even in games between teams that are only grudgingly trying to make anything happen at all, and even when everything suggests that those things should not happen. As the man said, it just worked out the way it worked out. Dallas Keuchel, like everyone else, might be nearer to the end than he knows. He also might be nearer to perfect than anyone suspects.