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Are Lance McCullers Jr.’s best years ahead of him?

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The Astros starting pitcher will be in Houston for several more years after signing an extension, and could be on the cusp of entering his prime.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Making an All-Star team and being a key cog on a championship roster in the same year would be quite the peak for any big leaguer. In 2017, at the ripe age of 23, Lance McCullers Jr. experienced this level of success. The Astros are betting there is more to come, as evidenced by the 5-year, $85 million extension they gave him Wednesday afternoon.

Now 27, the Astros stalwart figures to be entering his prime. While McCullers has proven to be a quality starter, he’s yet to truly put it all together for a full season, and has never pitched more than 128 innings in a single season due to injuries. He missed all of 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in late 2018.

Despite the host of injuries, there are reasons to be optimistic about McCullers’ future.

A fine track record

Although McCullers has had trouble with consistently staying healthy, his on-field production has been steady. In more than 500 career innings, his ERA is 3.70, good for an ERA+ of 110. Moreover, McCullers’ career FIP is a sterling 3.29.

As solid and dependable as McCullers has been in the past when on the mound, it takes a backseat to what he’s capable of going forward. It’s a primary reason why a renowned front office such as the Astros’ gave him a significant sum of money.

Were it not for one disastrous start, or perhaps even inning, McCullers would’ve finished the 2020 regular season with a career-best 2.81 ERA.

Granted, 55 innings is no less than a third of what’s expected from McCullers in a full season, but it is notable that during last year’s shortened season — his first since Tommy John surgery — McCullers stayed relatively healthy and did not experience any issues with his arm, nor did he sustain any injuries that could affect his future performance.

It’s not ideal to decipher stats from just 55 innings — or 69.2, counting the playoffs — but what can be given credence are particular aspects of McCullers’ game.

Improved location

In 2020, McCullers’ fastball command might have been the best it’s ever been. It may not appear that way initially when viewing his walk rate, which pertains more to control, but in terms of Shadow%, McCullers’ sinker ranked in the top 10 among starting pitchers’ fastballs (4-seam, 2-seam, sinker).

For context, it’s roughly the same rate as Dallas Keuchel’s sinker, Marco Gonzales’ sinker and Shane Bieber’s four-seamer, three starters with superb command.

Additionally, McCullers’ 2020 Meatball% — middle-middle pitches — was the lowest of his career, and was substantially lower than the league average. While his walk rate remains unremarkable, possessing good command can help compensate for the occasional free pass.

More movement

Excluding Justin Verlander, McCullers’ arsenal is arguably the best and most well-rounded on the Astros’ pitching staff. His high-grade collection of pitches saw an increase in quality in 2020.

Data from both Brooks Baseball and Statcast confirm that last season, McCullers’ pitches experienced a notable uptick in movement. The drop on his sinker, curveball and change-up were career-best marks.

So while his overall whiff rate slightly dipped in 2020, it would be reasonable to expect McCullers to miss more bats going forward. His obscene 35.4 percent strikeout rate in the playoffs could be indicative of that.

As if adding a promising cutter to his already nasty repertoire late last season wasn’t enough, it appears that McCullers is now experimenting with a slider.

It will be fascinating to see how he incorporates all of his pitches throughout a full season.

TL;DR version

The combination of present ability and untapped potential made McCullers an ideal extension candidate. If the Astros would have failed to reach an agreement with him, McCullers would likely have been one of the top starting pitchers on the free-agent market next winter.

In a vacuum, it’d be quite risky for a team to give $85 million to a starting pitcher with an extensive injury history, Tommy John and all. But the Astros need McCullers in their rotation — not just because they’re due to lose Verlander and Zack Greinke next winter, but because McCullers is simply too special a talent to let walk. The reward outweighs the risk.

The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant