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Struggling aces: Keuchel among top pitchers off to terrible starts

Defending AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel is off to a miserable start in 2016, but he's not the only ace struggling out of the gate this season.

Over his last three starts, defending AL Cy Young award winner Dallas Keuchel has allowed 16 runs, all earned, in 16 1/3 innings, giving him an 8.82 ERA and a 2.02 WHIP. His worst outing in that stretch came last night in a 6–2 loss to the Twins, as he walked four men in the fourth inning and was driven from the game by a two-run Byung-ho Park triple with one out in the fifth; he hit the showers having allowed five runs on five walks and seven hits in just 4 1/3 innings. At a time when Houston—still the only team in the majors not to have won consecutive games at any point this season—needs him most, Keuchel has authored three straight losses, exacerbating the Astros' pitching problems and dropping them into a tie with Minnesota for the worst record in baseball at 8–18.

Keuchel is not the only ace who has struggled this season. Newly engaged Justin Verlander will bring a 5.46 ERA to the mound in Cleveland on Tuesday night—a figure that may be misleading (four of Verlander’s five starts this season have been quality). But the struggles of several others have run much deeper than Verlander’s lone ERA-inflating clunker. Below are five nominal aces (including Keuchel) who have struggled to start the season, along with a quick look at their stats to see why and how they've been off their game.

Players are listed alphabetically. All stats are current as of Monday, May 2.

Zack Greinke, RHP, Diamondbacks
Season Stats: 2–2, 5.50 ERA (81 ERA+), 1.46 WHIP, 4.00 K/BB, 3.74 FIP

Greinke's problems appear to stem from the ball park he now calls home. In his first three starts at hitter-friendly Chase Field, Greinke gave up 18 runs in 16 2/3 innings, allowing five home runs. At that point, he had a 1.93 ERA on the road and a 9.72 ERA at home. Greinke broke that pattern in his last home start, holding Colorado to two runs over seven innings, an all-around strong performance that saw him strike out eight against two walks without allowing a home run. Still, in every season in their history, the Rockies have struggled to hit on the road; indeed, their road OPS in the early going this year is nearly 100 points lower than their home mark.

With the D-Backs kicking off a nine-game road trip on Tuesday night, it will be a while before Greinke is tested again in Phoenix. Projecting Arizona’s rotation forward, his next start at home won’t come until May 16 against the Yankees.

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Matt Harvey, RHP, Mets
Season Stats: 2–3, 4.76 ERA (84 ERA+), 1.52 WHIP, 2.33 K/BB, 3.57 FIP

Harvey went 0–3 with a 5.71 ERA through his first three starts of the season, but after the last of those, Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen told the media that he believed that Harvey had developed a mechanical issue and was collapsing his back leg when pitching out of the stretch. The numbers supported this theory: To that point, Harvey had held opponents to a .200/.263/.200 line without an extra-base hit in 38 plate appearances with the bases empty but had allowed a .464/.500/.643 performance in 35 PA with a runner on. Warthen worked on the issue with Harvey before his third start, and in two starts since, Harvey has pitched better with men on base (.308/.333/.346 in 28 PA), but his performance with the bases empty has declined (.316/.381/.474 in 21 PA).

The upshot there is that Harvey appears to have rediscovered his ability to work out of jams, and he turned in just his second quality start of the season in his last turn on Wednesday. Still, he has not been pitching efficiently, failing to work past the sixth inning in any of his starts this year. He also may be benefiting from soft competition, as he’ll face the Braves on Tuesday night for the second time in his last three starts.

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Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Astros
Season Stats: 2–4, 5.11 ERA (74 ERA+), 1.57 WHIP, 1.67 K/BB, 3.26 FIP

Everything seemed to be going just fine for Keuchel through his first three starts of the season, as he held a 2.18 ERA and had kept the Tigers’ powerful lineup scoreless for eight innings in the last of them. In each of his three starts since then, however, he has allowed at least five runs and taken the loss. One might be tempted to blame bad luck for the latter results, as his opponents have hit .455 on balls in play over those three starts. His Monday night start, however, brought back the one area of concern from his first three starts: an inflated walk total. Keuchel walked 10 men in 12 2/3 innings in his first two starts of the season and handed out five more free passes in 4 1/3 innings on Monday night. As a result, Keuchel’s walk rate this season (4.38) is more than twice what it was last year (1.98). His ground-ball rate, meanwhile, is at its lowest mark (55.5%) since his rookie year in 2012 (52.1).

Add in a drop in velocity (from 89.6 mph on his average fastball last year to 88.0 this season), and there could be a cause for real concern here regarding a pitcher who threw 246 innings between the regular season and playoffs in 2015 after topping out at 200 the year before. If there’s encouraging news about the Astros’ ace, it is that Keuchel’s velocity has been creeping back up as the season has progressed. That hasn’t helped to arrest his struggles, however.

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David Price, LHP, Red Sox
Season Stats: 4–0, 6.14 ERA (66 ERA+), 1.28 WHIP, 5.44 K/BB, 2.88 FIP

Price is another high-priced free agent who has struggled in his new hitting-friendly home park. The lefty has a 2.57 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 14 innings in his two road starts this season but a 8.34 ERA in his four home starts, three of which saw him allow five or more runs. Price did have a strong outing against Toronto's impressive lineup in his second home start at Fenway Park, but he has allowed 14 runs in 10 2/3 innings against the Rays and Yankees in his two home appearances since.

Batting average on balls in play won’t explain away the difference, as Price has had as much bad luck on the road as at home. It’s not the ballpark, either: Price had a 1.95 ERA in 11 career starts at Fenway before signing with the Red Sox this winter. Price’s still-excellent peripherals, road dominance and that one home gem against the Blue Jays suggest that his early struggles at home are likely just a fluke, but his heavy workloads in recent seasons—including exactly 500 innings between the regular season and playoffs over the last two years—and decline in velocity in the early going (even compared to previous Aprils) make it difficult to shrug off those poor outings.

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Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals
Season Stats: 2–3, 6.68 ERA (63 ERA+), 1.57 WHIP, 1.50 K/BB, 4.71 FIP

If Price and Keuchel threw too many innings last year, Wainwright threw too few, as an Achilles injury suffered in his fourth start last year wiped out most of his 2015 season. He returned to make a handful of relief appearances down the stretch and in the postseason, but his Opening Day start against the Pirates was his first regular-season start in more than 11 months. Wainwright turned in a quality start in that game but gave up 12 runs in 10 1/3 innings in his next two turns and has yet to put together two quality starts in a row despite pitching better over his last three starts. "Better" is a relative term, of course: Wainwright has a 5.19 ERA over those last three turns, even though two of them were quality and none were disasters.

Still, I’m still willing to chalk up Wainwright's early struggles to rust. Since walking five men in his second start of the season, he has walked just one man in each of his last four turns. His velocity is right in line with 2014, his last full season. He is giving up a lot of hard contact, however: His strikeouts are down, as are his pop-ups and his ground balls, all seemingly replaced by line drives.

Ironically, Wainwright’s opponents aren’t the only ones hitting the ball hard. The righty himself has gone 3 for 5 with a double, a triple and a three-run home run in his last two appearances, driving in six and scoring once in those games; he earned the win both times as much for hit hitting as his pitching. As long as he can correct with his bat whatever damage he does on the mound, Wainwright will be just fine, which is to say the time has come for him to scrape off the last of that rust.