In recent fan polling at cchooks.com, 67 percent indicated they believe Dallas Keuchel is the Corpus Christi starter who will win the most 2011 games.
It's a well-educated guess. He tops starters in earned run average, innings pitched and walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP). The Tulsa native opened nine games for the Hooks last season after making his Double-A debut at Frisco in late July. Keuchel is the only member of Corpus Christi's rotation who pitched here in 2010. He's already been named Texas League Pitcher-of-the-Week (April 18).
Keuchel had great success as a collegian at the University of Arkansas. That's SEC baseball, where it's not uncommon for half or more of 12 league members to rank in the Top 25. The Astros drafted him in the seventh round just two years ago, when he won two games at the College World Series, putting the finishing touches on a 9-3 campaign... his 18th and 19th victories as a Razorback.
Keuchel had what is today a common experience for the most accomplished players. He began select baseball at a tender age (8).
"I started really young," Keuchel said. "They had a team where I went to elementary school. Then, when I was in second grade, we formed a competitive team. My dad got involved. We played in different leagues and did quite a bit of traveling around."
It's not a stretch to see young Dallas was quite the bopper. Left-handed, he ultimately grew into a 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame and loved to get his hacks along the way.
"As a young player, I was a pretty good outfielder and I could hit. I won my share of offensive MVP awards. I thought long-term I'd be an outfielder.
"But, as soon as we went into kid-pitch, I was pitching. Dad was a pitching coach, and we kind of went from there. That was OK. I was always around the plate, and not every kid can do that."
That's for sure. Just ask any youth coach.
Even in high school, Keuchel harbored hopes of staying in the outfield. That all changed with the 2004 Oklahoma Class 5A state finals, when he pitched Bishop Kelley to victory. In the Sooner State, private and public schools play for one trophy.
"During baseball the summer after tenth grade, I realized pitching was the way I'd go," Keuchel recalled. "I still miss being able to play every day, but it's nice being able to throw every fifth day. In college it was just once a week.
"As an amateur player I didn't watch games like I do now. I watch every opposing hitter's approach at the plate. Now I have knowledge of the game and try to take in everything I can."
Knowledge of enemy hitters isn't the only thing Keuchel collects. He's a shoes horse.
"I limited myself to 10 pair when I came to Corpus Christi this time."
And how many pairs of shoes does he own?
"Seventy-five or eighty."
See, Keuchel is an artist who studied apparel design in Fayetteville. His goal beyond baseball is to work for "Nike or Under Armor or a brand like that designing sports shoes or casual shoes."
And what was apparel design like at the University of Arkansas?
"It was ninety-eight percent girls. I met just a couple of other guys. I learned some good things and had the opportunity to meet some good-looking girls."
Keuchel took to art at a young age.
"I used to go in my room and draw stuff," he remembered. "I had an art teacher in elementary and middle school. Her name is Sandy Huggins and she showed a lot of faith in me."
When Keuchel retreated to his room and pulled out a No. 2 pencil (still his favorite medium), he drew caricatures of Ken Griffey, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa... and automobiles and... shoes. What he loves most about art: "it's just creativity and imagination."
And the link between pitching and art?
"I take great pride in just being free out on the mound. You can't be tense out there, it's a hard game to play. You have to relax and be free. It's just like art, where it's me, the pen and the paper."
At Whataburger Field and other Texas League venues, it's Keuchel, the hitter and the mitt. His medium: the baseball. One result is a 1-to-4.02 career walk-to-strikeout ratio.
"My greatest strength is composure. You've got to have it to be successful. You can't freak out, let your emotions get the best of you. You just have to keep grinding."
Some days, even the most creative have to grind.
Obviously, Keuchel enjoys solitude. But he plays a lot of MLB and NBA video games ("It's a safe bet I'm addicted") with strength and conditioning coach Quentin Eberhardt, pitchers Matt Nevarez and Shane Wolf and outfielder T.J. Steele.
"I like to think I'm pretty good. It's something for us to do, good competition and it gets the blood flowing, too."
Perhaps all the way to an occasional loss of composure.
Most of all, Keuchel is grateful.
"Just getting an opportunity to play the game I love, to do what I love for a career, is such a blessing. When my career is over, they'll have to rip the ball from my hand. Some people play for money, but you have to play for love of the game first. My dad taught me that."
When the time comes, No. 2 pencils are more plentiful than baseballs. And far less expensive.