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Pitch Usage Watch, Postseason Edition: Lance McCullers Jr.

The Astros send out their ace for Game 1 and how he utilizes his pitches is key to start the ALDS.

MLB: ALDS-Workouts Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Astros are all set to square off against the White Sox in the best-of-five ALDS. Rosters have been announced and the lineups for Game 1 already posted. With the field set and roof closed to kick off this shindig, Houston is hoping to advance to its fifth consecutive ALCS of this golden era.

Game 1 will set the tone for this series and it all starts with who is on the mound at the onset. In the Astros’ case, it is Lance McCullers Jr. and he is all too familiar with the postseason atmosphere. His curveball-or-bust approach in Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS is stuff of legend around these parts.

But the 2021 version made some adjustments to his repertoire by adding a slider to the mix. In turn, the usage of his other pitches have take a downturn by varying degrees. It was his curveball usage most of all that saw the steepest decline as he went from throwing it 46.6 percent of the time in 2018 to only 25 percent this season. Talk about a departure from the norm.

This adjustment ultimately worked as intended with the posting the lowest wOBA allowed in his career at .283. The slider, in particular, was quite effective with a .242 wOBA and 35.9 percent whiff rate. Combined with a curveball with a 36.7 percent whiff rate along with a 38.5 percent whiff rate changeup, the slider gave McCullers another valuable weapon in his arsenal.

In recent months, however, we’ve seen his pitch usage kind of flipped on its head. Since August, McCullers has relied more upon his curveball than we saw previously in the season with a 39.8 percent rate in September alone. That figure is reminiscent of McCullers from his earlier days. His slider, in turn, dropped from a season-high 38.3 percent in July to 17.4 percent in September, which represents a season-low. Based on wOBA allowed, it is reasonable to assume that opposing hitters had started to figure out McCullers’ slider by some measure and he is adjusting back to his curveball which remains more than effective.

The question at this point is what will McCullers throw to the White Sox? He isn’t afraid to adjust and we could see a spike in slider usage. Perhaps the curveball remains his primary option as we’ve seen it become in September? Could I be making too much of this? Well, yes. In any case, I encourage us all to watch how he pitches this afternoon closely. It might be fairly telling.