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Lance McCullers: Deeper Dive into his Abysmal Start

It’s the curve. His best pitch has become his worst. They’re blasting it.

Houston Astros v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

There’s no sugar-coating this. Lance McCullers has been terrible in three games so far in 2020. Wednesday night he surrendered eight runs in 3.2 innings, all in the fourth. It was bombs away. Fans are starting to ask: “Will Lance McCullers successfully recover his career after Tommy John surgery?” Inquiring minds want to know.

All of his vital stats read dramatically down. His ERA is 9.22. Career: 3.83. WHIP: 1.83. Career: 1.29.

He’s not missing bats. K% 16.9%. Career: 26.3%. Contact %: 77.5%. Career: 73.1%. Swinging strike %: 9.4%, down from career average of 11.9%

And not only is he getting hit more often, he’s getting hit harder. Way harder. According to Fangraphs calculations, his hard hit % is 45.7 in 2020, compared to a career average of 29.8%.

Here are some more vital statistics from Statcast:

Exit Velocity: 89.1 mph, lower 42% of league

XWOBA: .412, lower 26% of league

Barrel %: 15.2, lower 17% of league.

All dramatically worse than career averages.

There’s one tiny sliver of a silver lining here. His 9.22 ERA seems to overstate his degree of suck. Stacast says his expected ERA based on current pitch profile is 7.23. His WOBA, .433, is higher than his XWOBA. And Fangraphs rates his SIERA at 4.65. This is an advanced metric based on batted ball profile that attempts to predict future ERA. Zack Greinke is only slightly better at 4.24.

And of course, the standard caveat at this point in the season: small sample size. Having not pitched for a year, and coming off Tommy John surgery, it may take time for McCullers to find his groove.

But so far, what’s wrong?

A few charts and graphs might help tell the story. Here’s the history of Lance’s velocity on his various pitches through his career.

Comparing 2020 to 2018, we see that McCullers has lost about a mile per hour on his sinker and change up, but almost three miles an hour on his curve. Other interesting facts not shown here, McCullers’ pitch selection has become almost even between his sinker, curve and change, with much more change up use this year and less curve.

Another potentially relevant detail: McCullers’ curve actually has about three inches more vertical drop and about an inch more horizontal movement than 2018. So his curve is moving more, but also more slowly. And this: his release point on all pitches is several inches further from his body than in years past.

Now let’s look at the results on his pitches. Fangraphs has a rating system for the effectiveness of pitches which they call Pitch Info Pitch Values. I will use their per 100 rating. A rating of 0 is average.

Sinker: -2.53

Change up: 1.94

Curve: -6.17

In case you don’t know how to read these stats, the sinker rating is merely terrible, but the curve rating is off the charts bad. This used to be his main put away pitch, but according to Statcast his putaway % on the curve in 2020 is 15.4%. In 2018 it was 24.7%

No way he’s baffling the Yankees with 24 straight curves in 2020 like he did in the 2017 ALCS.

The following chart shows the slugging percentage against each of Lance’s pitches throughout his career.

The change up had become Lance’s best pitch by 2018 and it still is, which may explain his increased us of it. But the league is slugging about a 100 points better against it than in 2018, about 200 points better against the sinker, but more than 600 points higher against the curve than in 2018.

Here’s something to classify under the heading strange but true. Lance throws his curve to left-handers more than any other pitch. They slug it at .833, slightly lower than the sinker, but much higher than the change up. Normally right-handed pitchers with good change ups throw that to left-handed batters more than curves. And yet he has thrown 72 curves to lefties, only 51 to righties. This is exactly the opposite of what you’d normally expect from a right-handed pitcher.

Righties are crushing the curve even more, hitting it at a 1.667 clip. Again, you’d expect right-handed hitters to have more trouble with a right-handed curve than lefties.

What the meaning of this reverse split on the curveball is I will leave to smarter and more knowledgeable analysts than myself.

Historically, righties have hit .320 SLG on Lance’s curve, and lefties .254. So OK, there has always been a slight reverse split in the McCuller curve, but not this much. And most disturbing is how much worse it is to all hitters: .952 in 2020, .287 lifetime.

So what’s wrong with Lance? It could be he’s tipping his curve. That’s always a convenient excuse, but sometimes it’s true. But back in the day, Lance could throw all curves, everyone knew he would, and they still couldn’t hit it.

It could be he’s concentrating on the change up so much he’s neglected the curve. But he had the change down pat in 2018 and could still throw effective curves.

I’m afraid the most likely answer is the one we least want to hear. That Lance hasn’t come back from elbow surgery. That either he doesn’t trust his elbow to throw the quick, snappy curve of his heyday, which would be preferable because that’s just a mental condition, or his elbow just isn’t letting him do it.

The slower velocity on his pitches, especially the curve, the different trajectory and release point on the curve, all point to Lance trying to work around his arm.

Or maybe he’s just trying to rediscover his old style and will eventually round back into form.

I’m hope that’s true, but it feels like the former explanation is more likely. Lance may need to find another breaking pitch that doesn’t strain his elbow so much. But that would be a more radical form of reconstructive surgery than Tommy John.