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Lance McCullers Jr. is quietly facing a pivotal 2021

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With an uncertain future in Houston, the Astros’ last remaining starting pitcher from the 2017 championship team must make the most out of a crucial 2021 season

League Championship - Houston Astros v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Seven Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Lance McCullers Jr. is a free agent next winter. This fact has not been a mainstream topic of discussion this winter and because it isn’t an immediate issue, it seems to have been put on the back burner. The reality is that there are significant pressing matters at hand, and McCullers’ situation is not chief among them. What is at the forefront right now is the Astros having to replace one, if not two, All-Star outfielders this offseason.

Without any tangible internal options, general manager James Click will have to overhaul the outfield externally, in a suppressed free agent market with an underwhelming crop of outfielders to choose from. Moreover, some of the better players in that crop will likely not even consider signing with Houston due to the sign-stealing scandal.

Next, Click and owner Jim Crane will have to reckon with the notion of losing star shortstop Carlos Correa next winter in free agency. It would be reasonable to assume that extending Correa this winter is one of the top priorities for the Astros’ brass, as he’s become the vocal leader of the club and is now subsequently the face of the franchise. Crane failed to secure an extension for ace Gerrit Cole after the 2018 season. Then, in the following winter after the 2019 season, Crane was unable to extend center fielder George Springer. Cole’s already wearing a different uniform, and Springer is highly likely to do the same come next season.

To put it bluntly, it would be an embarrassment if Crane were to fail to extend a cornerstone player for the third consecutive offseason, especially without much money committed to the team beyond 2021. That is why Correa’s impending free agency is a more salient topic in the Astros discourse.

Where McCullers figures into all of this is relatively unknown. An All-Star in 2017, McCullers’ premium stuff has only expanded as he’s gotten older. But it’s never been a question of talent for McCullers. Since he debuted in 2015, he’s never thrown more than 128 innings in the big leagues. It’s not due to inconsistency or inadequacy, but durability.

In an era where it’s no longer a necessity for quality starting pitchers to reach 200 innings, it is still preferable that they eclipse 150. McCullers is more than capable of reaching that mark and exceeding it, but injuries have nagged him over the years, and they culminated in November of 2018 when he underwent Tommy John surgery, which forced him to miss all of 2019.

McCullers returned to the mound in 2020. As he’s done every season since his debut, McCullers pitched competently and showed flashes of being the top-of-the-rotation starter that he was in the first half of 2017.

What’s most important about McCullers’ 2020 is that he stayed mostly healthy. Aside from missing nearly two weeks in September due to a nerve issue in his neck, the 2020 season was a successful campaign for him health-wise. Pitching after Tommy John surgery can be daunting and intricate, so the fact that McCullers logged almost 70 innings (including playoffs) without a hiccup in his arm is positive. What’s more, he did so with his usual mid-90s velocity.

Now that McCullers will be entering the 2021 season on the heels of a presumably healthy and normal offseason, he could be primed for a career year. Having said that, his 2020 — while solid overall — was fairly uneven. There’s a bit more good than bad, but it’d be worthwhile to examine both.

A broad arsenal expanding

McCullers is a self-admitted “stuff guy.” He knows he’s going to generate plenty of whiffs and doesn’t need to rely heavily on nibbling the corners like other pitchers do. When McCullers first made it to the big leagues, he was primarily a two-pitch pitcher, only using his third pitch, a changeup, sparingly. Fast forward to the present, and the mid-80s changeup is now an above-average to plus offering. It’s not only effective against left-handed hitters, but against right-handed hitters as well. It misses bats, it’s seldom lifted into the air, and is altogether a difficult pitch to do damage against.

McCullers’ knuckle curve is still his preferred weapon of choice. Among all qualified starters’ curveballs, McCullers’ was tied for 5th in whiff%. While it is a nasty pitch with sharp break in the mid-80s, it did get squared up more often this past season than in prior seasons, though with the sample sizes of 2020 being less than half of a normal season, it could be an outlier. It’s also worth noting that McCullers threw his hook less often in 2020 than he did in 2018, a year when he threw it more often than any other pitch.

A mid-90s power sinker is what McCullers threw the most in 2020. It too is a quality offering, inducing an abundance of ground balls and a good amount of mediocre contact.

All three of these pitches have terrific movement, both vertically and horizontally. Three above-average to plus pitches is more than enough for a starting pitcher, but this isn’t all that McCullers throws, however.

Late in the 2020 season, he debuted a low-90s cutter. Playoffs included, McCullers threw 41 cutters. It was in the playoffs that he really began to utilize the pitch more, doing so at a rate above 10%. While 41 pitches is a microscopic sample size, what stands out is that McCullers threw all 41 cutters to left-handed batters. When viewing the zone profile, it’s obvious what he was attempting to do with the pitch:

McCullers was not only routinely elevating his cutter, but he’s trying to steal strikes high and away with the pitch cutting back over the outer part of the plate.

When I first saw McCullers throw this new pitch in early September, I didn’t think much of it one way or the other, as it was essentially a show-me pitch at the time and wasn’t yet a featured pitch in McCullers’ repertoire. Alex Fast of MLB.com, on the other hand, immediately saw the value that the pitch added and its potential:

As September progressed, it became clear that the cutter could become yet another viable pitch for McCullers. Here’s more video of it in action:

Fast breaks down in great detail how the addition of the cutter is significant:

With a full offseason for further refinement, McCullers’ cutter could be a potent pitch in 2021, when we should see a steady and healthy dose of it.

The changeup becoming a reliable weapon a few years ago was an exciting development. Now, McCullers could have a fourth quality pitch. Not many pitchers have three.

So, about the bad

McCullers is one of the top ground ball pitchers in baseball. His career HR/9 is a terrific 0.71. Despite those attributes, there is cause for concern regarding the home run ball. Including the playoffs, McCullers’ barrel rate in 2020 was 12%. That is a high figure. Additionally, it was 8.2% in 2018, which is also slightly inflated and below the league average.

A ball being barreled does not necessarily mean it will result in a home run. However, it very much is indicative of extra base hits. And, if at an alarming rate such as 12%, it could evolve into a home run problem — possibly a substantial one — as evidenced in the 2020 playoffs, when McCullers allowed seven home runs in only three starts.

With the launch angle revolution and with the ball itself being juiced, avoiding barrels is important for pitchers nowadays. In 2019, 77.9% of all extra base hits were barrels. Extra base hits such as doubles and triples are obviously bad for pitchers, but they don’t automatically result in runs like home runs do. So, what percentage of barrels were home runs? 59.4%. That is a lot. That means if a ball is barreled, it’s more likely than not to exit the park.

Let’s briefly go back to McCullers’ devastating home run tendencies in the 2020 playoffs. In the playoffs, he produced downright absurd strikeout (35.4%) and walk (3.1%) rates. Basically, it’s a nearly 12/1 K/BB ratio. If it’s 4/1, you’re doing quite well in that arena.

McCullers did allow a .262 batting average against, which isn’t ideal, but it’s far from crippling, especially if the walks are extremely limited, which they were in this context.

With all of that accounted for, here’s McCullers’ playoff ERA: 4.91.

Tons of strikeouts, minimal walks and merely a moderate amount of hits, and still, he posts an ERA of nearly 5.00. That’s the damage that the long ball can do, particularly if nearly half the number of hits allowed are home runs, as is the case here. It’s partially why modern baseball is about producing home runs offensively and preventing them when on the mound.

That’s far from the best example, as it only covers a minuscule 15-inning sample size, but it’s marginally pertinent since this is all about McCullers. He’s great at keeping the ball on the ground but he can’t afford to continue to allow hard contact in the air.

Remedying this issue may not be simple, but McCullers is a talented and savvy pitcher.

TL;DR version

Click and Crane have a list of priorities this offseason, and a McCullers extension is unlikely to be at or near the top of it. It’s no secret that McCullers is confident in his abilities, so it’s impractical to foresee him sign a contract that isn’t befitting of what he’s capable of, and that’s assuming that he’d be approached with one — the holes in the Astros’ outfield, Correa’s contract status, a penny-pinching market and McCullers’ history of injuries and lack of consistency make it an unrealistic notion.

There’s reason to believe that McCullers will put it all together in 2021. Even with an unspectacular strike-throwing ability, his well-rounded collection of pitches is arguably the best on the Astros’ pitching staff. He’s long been able to make up for the free passes and did so at an All-Star level in 2017. Now that he’s better equipped than ever before, is 2021 the year that we see him reach his ceiling? Given that he’s fully healthy entering a contract year, the answer to that question should be apparent and straightforward.

But here’s the thing about enigmatic pitchers: they’re enigmatic.

The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant.