Closing Time: Another mess for Dallas Keuchel

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Houston Astros starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel delivers to the Boston Red Sox during the first inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park, Thursday, May 12, 2016, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
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Score one for Dustin Pedroia, pitching coach. Boston’s veteran middle infielder spotted a minor and correctable flaw in David Price’s mechanics last week, and the fix was a smash in Thursday’s romp over Houston. Price worked into the seventh inning, allowed just six hits and one walk, gave up run, struck out 12. Take another big name off the restricted list. There’s not much to talk about here. Price still has to deal with a tricky park and division, but we’ll sign off on him going forward.  

Dallas Keuchel, you ask? Ah, that’s the rub. Keuchel was a mess once again, and he’s one of the trickier calls on the current pitcher board. 

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Keuchel’s Crooked Number Tour continued at Fenway (6 IP, 10 H, 8 R, 3 BB, 4 K, 2 HR), pushing his ERA to 5.58 and his WHIP to 1.60. His fastball velocity has dropped 1.5 mph from last year, and he’s had minor leakage with his ground-ball rate (slightly down) and home-run rate (slightly up). Keuchel’s walk rate is perhaps the most troubling; last year it was under two per nine innings, but this year it’s almost to four. 

Keuchel’s allowing a .349 hit rate on balls in play, as batters as hitting the ball much harder against him than they did last year. The ERA estimators suggest he’s been a little unlucky, but not grossly so: a 4.04 FIP or a 3.77 xFIP wouldn’t match what you expected in March. 

You want to give Boston’s hitters some credit for Thursday’s big number — the Red Sox have the best offense in the game right now — but not all of Keuchel’s 2016 struggles can be written off so easily. The Rangers got him for six runs in Arlington, okay, that makes sense. Getting kicked around by the Twins and Mariners, that’s not so easily explained. Perhaps more home cooking will be a salve for Keuchel going forward — he was just about untouchable at the Juice Box last year, and he still has a reasonable 3.26 ERA in Houston this season. The five road starts have been the major problem (7.04/1.73, 15 walks against 27 strikeouts). 

Keuchel pitches at the White Sox next week, a turn I’d suggest you avoid. After that, I’ll tentatively put him on the mound for a home start against Baltimore. He’s still one of the smartest pitchers around, a terrific fielder, a lefty with a heavy ground-ball profile. There are still logical reasons to expect a notable return. But I’d like a prove-it start before I become more committed to the story. 

Come on, get Happy (Cliff McBride/Getty)
Come on, get Happy (Cliff McBride/Getty)

• Whatever J.A. Happ is having for breakfast these days, pour me a bowl of it, too. Happ has a snappy five victorires in his last six starts, the latest an 8.2 inning bagel parade at San Francisco (6 H, 3 BB, 5 K). The ERA is down to 2.05, the WHIP trimmed to 1.16. 

We saw two Happs in 2015, a meatball machine in Seattle (4.64/1.41) and an 11-start wizard in Pittsburgh (1.86/1.03). Is Ray Searage that incredible as a pitching whisperer? Is Francisco Cervelli that unreal as a pitch framer? Does PNC Park help pitchers that much? How much of it can be traced to the NL life, where the pitchers give away outs and most teams don’t try for the big inning? 

Happ had nowhere to hide when he signed with Toronto the offseason, but so far, so good. It’s been mostly a pitch-to-contact story, with a K rate under six and a friendly .277 BABIP. The ground-ball rate is nothing special. The homer clip is an eyelash under normal levels, but not something that’s screaming out “correction.”

Happ’s hard-hit rate is at a five-year low, so let’s give him some credit for that. He’s nudged his swinging strike up a bit. Working with Russell Martin doesn’t hurt, another excellent stealer of strikes behind the plate. 

At this point, Happ looks like an automatic punch, no matter the opponent. Tampa Bay and Minnesota wait on the schedule, two teams you want to attack. 

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• Variance has been the name of the James Shields game in 2016, but the arrow was pointing up Thursday at Milwaukee. Shields didn’t allow a run over seven innings (7 H, 0 BB), and his nine strikeouts were a seasonal high. He’s taken the ERA down to 3.12, a tidy number. 

And maybe that’s a sellable number, too. Shields has the cushy ERA despite a 1.31 WHIP and a K/BB rate that’s barely over two (when ERA and WHIP tell a different story, I tend to trust the WHIP). Between his current ERA and last year’s 216 strikeouts, some of you might be able to cash in on a little overinflated name value. 

Let’s look at some of the other key indicators. The strikeout rate has tumbled from last year, strand rate has been fortunate, FIP and xFIP both suggest an ERA over four. Shields has also lost a full mph off his fastball. It’s not that I’m calling for an outright collapse, but I’d rather be early than late to the story, and Shields is in the middle of an age-34 season. Tell the other guys you want to “move a pitcher,” see if they pick out Shields’s name. This could be your window. 

• Mallex Smith needs to show something quickly if he’s going to stick in Atlanta, and perhaps he’s starting to do just that. Smith has steals in his last two games, and is on a reasonable 10-for-30 binge over last last nine starts. The Braves are giving Smith plenty of freedom on the bases — he’s swiped six thus far, been caught four times. 

The only immediate killjoy to the story is a weekend set at Kansas City: the Royals have cut down 12-of-22 attempting to steal, the best rate in the league. But there are many good draws down the road for Smith, especially in the NL; the Phillies, Cubs and Mets are in the bottom six in steal percentage allowed. Oh, if only Smith could run against his own team, too (thieves are 26-for-32 against Atlanta). 

Smith is unowned in 94 percent of Yahoo leagues. I’ll be watching him closely for the next few days. Rabbit, run.